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Acharei Mot: What can Bloody Meat tell us about Bloody Words?  

Image courtesy of Pixabay (https://pixabay.com/illustrations/yada-yada-board-insignificance-1432923/)

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”  If this silly schoolyard adage was ever true, it was only true in one sense.  (Ask any person who has been the subject of bullying.)  Names may not hurt you, but that is only because they can kill you.

Elon Musk, the richest man in the world, will be buying Twitter, turning the largest microphone in the world into a private commodity.  His naïve justification has been to ensure the freedom of speech.  Unlike Tesla or Space X in which the raw materials are transformed into a certain product, the raw material of Twitter is society itself – our dreams and ideas for sure, but also our hatreds and more base characteristics.  The product will not be a car or a rocket but society itself, and no one individual should wield such unchecked power.

The name of the company, Twitter, is very telling but not in the way you might assume.  In the last two weekly parshiot we read, we discussed the Metzora, the one plagued with a mysterious skin disease. Many Biblical and rabbinic texts imply the condition is a punishment of sorts for the sin of lashon hara, evil speech, or gossip.  The word Metzora in the midrash is playfully read as one who is motzi ra, one who speaks evil (BT Arachin 15B).  In defaming another, a person has become shunned, and therefore the Metzora/ gossiper  himself goes into isolation.

When the person heals from the disease, he may reenter the camp, but first must perform a strange purification ceremony.  Part of the purification process is to take two turtle doves and slaughter one, draining its blood into an earthen vessel over running water.  The other bird is then dipped into this blood and sent free.  Why birds?  The rabbis teach that like the gossiper who cannot restrain themselves from chatter, birds are constantly ‘tweeting,’ or should we say, ‘have active Twitter accounts.’  The Keli Yakar (commentary by Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz, originally published in 1602) adds that there are two birds because of two types of speech; one is holy and prayerful speech that brings holiness and life into the world, while the other is debased and destructive; the Metzora needs to learn the difference.  One can tweet life and one can tweet death, and both life and death are wrapped up in the words we use- as we will see.

Why the dipping into the blood?  What could this mean?  Obviously, the meaning of such rituals are open to multiple explanations, but I think a key to understanding this act can be found in a strange law in this week’s parashah that seemed to only have applied during the period when the Jewish people sojourned in the wilderness.[1]  While some of these points I will make may seem arcane, they are really fundamental theological ideas very relevant for our lives.  (If you are a vegetarian, you will want to read on!)

In Jewish law blood cannot be consumed, and therefore within three days kosher meat must be either salted or roasted, a process in which the blood is said to be drawn out.  When the Israelites sojourned in the desert for forty years, if one had an animal that they wanted to eat, they would first need to bring it to the tabernacle as a sacrifice.  Once the ‘blood was sprinkled on the base of the altar’ and certain parts given to the priests, the rest could be eaten by the one bringing the sacrifice .  If the animal was not eligible for the altar (like a deer), the Torah commands that the blood should be spilled on the ground and covered with dust.  While the cultic significance is important in the context, the Torah states emphatically that one who does not do these things is guilty of manslaughter, having shed blood.  The Hebrew dam shafach, ‘he has spilled blood,’ is the exact same language that is used in connection to humans.   One of the explanations the Torah gives for this prohibition is that ‘the lifeforce of the flesh is in the blood’ (Lev. 17:11).  In other words, it is the blood which transforms an inanimate piece of flesh into a living breathing organism.   Clearly, eating an animal is not like eating a piece of fruit.

However, one might ask if taking the life of an animal is akin to manslaughter, why does the Torah ever allow it?!  In truth, there are clear indications in the Torah that when human beings were created, they were meant to be vegetarians, and only after the flood, recognizing the ‘evil heart of men,’ were animals permitted to be eaten ‘like the grain fields’ (Gen 9:3).  Interestingly, following the story of the flood as well, the consuming of an animal with its blood is similarly prohibited, and again compared to murder (Gen. 9:4-5).  This commandment, called ever min hachai, prohibits the consumption of a limb of an animal while it is still alive.  This commandment, which in rabbinic thought is given to all humanity (one of the ‘seven Noachide laws’), is clearly based upon the idea that the consumption of the creature should not be coextensive with the taking of the life. This is what an animal might do; predators regularly consume their pray while the animal is still alive.  The mitzvah underscores that all life belongs to God, and therefore no one has the right to take a life- any form of life.

Thus, when the Torah allowed one to eat meat, the parameters of this eating were highly circumscribed.  With an animal eligible to be placed on the altar, the blood needed to be thrown on the altar, an act that symbolically acknowledged that the blood, i.e., life itself, belongs to God.  In a case of an animal not eligible for the altar, the blood had to be spread on the ground and covered (kisui hadam). The image of blood being spilled on the ground and covered is a strong allusion to Cain and Abel, in which Cain spills the blood of his brother, and God exclaims to Cain, “The blood of your brother screams to me from the dust of the ground.” If my theory is correct, the covering of the blood is an act of sublimation, ‘covering up’ the act of violence that was just done.  It is true we may eat flesh, but we may never consume the life-force of another creature (i.e., the blood), and we must recognize that all forms of life have vitality and holiness, as all life belongs to God.

Now let’s return to our discussion of the purification ceremony of the metzora. Interestingly, in addition to the metzora/gossiper being isolated from others, he also is rabbinically compared to a person dead- as the white blotchy skin is reminiscent of the decay of a body following death.  (See my previous reflection for Parashat Tazria where I develop this idea.)  Why would a gossiper be punished with a punishment that is a symbolic death?  Perhaps because evil speech is consistently compared in rabbinic texts to a form of manslaughter!  Manslaughter in Jewish law is a capital crime!

While there are clear situations in which one must speak negatively about another, these are the exceptions, not the rule. [2]  Gossip and lashon hara are acts of character assassination, and the rabbis equate humiliating another to spilling blood. Rav Naḥman bar Yitzḥak noted that like the metzora, the face of one humiliated becomes white, as the red blood drains from his face (BT Bava Metzia 58b).  Similarly, in an extended treatment of Lashon Hara/gossip the rabbis state that there are three victims in the crime: the one who speaks it, the one who receives it and the one about whom it is spoken (Arachin 15b).  It is clear why the object of gossip is a victim, but both the speaker and the listener are impacted as well; both become accustomed and desensitized to dehumanizing speech and therefore their own humanity is reduced.  In next week’s parashah we read that a ‘talebearer should not walk amongst the people,’ followed immediately by the commandment ‘do not stand idly by the blood of your brother’ (Lev. 19:16).  Noting the juxtaposition, perhaps we can homiletically say that to stand idly by and do nothing to stop lashon hara is akin to watching the death of your fellow man and doing nothing, at least figuratively, as their reputation is destroyed.

Returning to the ritual of dipping the bird into the blood of a slaughtered bird, we might read this ritual in moral terms.  The speaker of lashon hara has been involved in character assassination, and like the bird whose blood was shed, the gossiper in a sense has shed blood.  The speaker, like the bird who goes free, lives to see another day, but the object of the lashon hara never completely recovers.

Ultimately, why did the rabbis compare gossip and negative speech to manslaughter?  Firstly, perhaps because evil and invective speech very often leads to actual acts of violence.  There is a very thin line between hate speech (legally permitted) and incitement (prohibited speech).  It behooves people to consider the price people will pay in a world without responsible regulation in this emergent digital world, where people can spread the most malicious accusations and hatred behind a mask of anonymity.  Words will indeed lead to sticks and stones and quite literally deaths- they already have, as thousands upon thousands have become radicalized through social media.  Advocates for unfettered freedom of expression should be very careful for what they wish.

However, more fundamentally, the rabbis point to the nature of the soul (nefesh) of the human being.  While all animals have an animate soul, a nefesh, the human being has an order of life which is qualitatively different.  The Torah tells us that when we were created as an animate being, God blew into our nostrils the breath of life, the nishmat Chayim.  This part of the human being, the ‘breath of God,’ has its source in the eternal and the infinite.  Rashi states that at root our creation took from both the stuff of the earth and the heavens, the material and the transcendent.[3]  To be human is to be both mortal and immortal; humans are greater than the limited creatures we might assume we are.  Each of us have the imprint of the Divine.  When one speaks lashon hara, they may not be killing the physical body of a person, but they most certainly are destroying the spiritual existence of this person, as they are reducing that Divine imprint.[4]  In essence, a society that is defined by public defamation and invective against another leads to a society in which the image of God that resides in the face of each person is irreparably reduced, or even destroyed.  In this act, ‘murder’ has been committed against the Divine image.   This truly is an act of violence against each human being, because being human is not merely a physical fact, but a spiritual reality.  Debased speech about one another can make us desensitized to this higher reality in our lives.

Blood contains the life force.  This week’s parashah teaches us the importance of recognizing the sacredness of all life forms, for every creature large and small. If we need to be mindful of the soul of every creature, how much more so do we have to be mindful of the soul and spiritual basis of every human being.  Mindfulness in our speech is a good place to begin.

Shabbat Shalom

[1] The Biblical laws change when they come to the land of Israel and people do not live near the Temple (Deut. 12:20-21).  The reasons for this prohibition are more complex than I am stating here. The full relevance of these laws in relationship to the centralization of the Tabernacle/Temple in worship, expiation of sins, and mitigation of idolatrous forms of worship is beyond the purview of this essay.

[2] See for example Rashi Lev. 19:16

[3] Commentary to Gen.  2:7

[4] I intend to write more about this concept next week.

About the Author
Fred Klein is Director of Mishkan Miami: The Jewish Connection for Spiritual Support, and serves as Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. In this capacity he oversees Jewish pastoral care support for Miami’s Jewish Community, train volunteers in friendly visiting and bikkur cholim, consult with area synagogues in creating caring community, and organize conferences on spirituality, illness and aging. As director of the interdenominational Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami, Fred provides local spiritual leadership with a voice in communal affairs. He has taught at and been involved with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, Hebrew College of Boston, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, CLAL– The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is Vice President for the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, former Chair of the Interfaith Clergy Dialogue of the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews, and formerly served on the Board of the Neshama: the Association of Jewish Chaplains.
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