“During Rosh Hashanah, the whole city is celebrating with God. But during Yom Kippur, it is only you and Him.” I was sitting in my bed, in a shared room in a hostel in Jerusalem, when an Orthodox woman said this to me in conversation. I had never thought of Yom Kippur in this way, imbued with privacy and intimacy. The thought that I could sit across from God and spend an entire day with Him, that our God was so accessible and therefore I, so exposed, was baffling and a little intimidating. What would God see in me? What was left to hide, in the presence of such a guest?
Yom Kippur has always had a point of contempt for me as a child. Fasting is an act of self-discipline I rarely had growing up. (What child does?) But as I grew older, I started to see that the denial of food during Yom Kippur was a way to help us reflect on our ethical choices. But how can we prioritize some choices, and not others? We practice the act of eating at least three times a day. Wouldn’t this be at the forefront of our atonements?
In this age of information, it is impossible to be wholly ignorant of the ethical horrors and environmental destruction of the animal agriculture industry. Most people settle into vague generalities—Yes I am sure it is bad, heard some things, probably not great—and then return to eating their dinner. But Yom Kippur is about examining our generalities up close. We take this time to run scenarios, remember conversations, ways we could have handled them better, or spoke less loud, or with more kindness. Yes, you hurt your sister’s feelings last year, but how badly? What did you say? Why did you say it? What would you say to her now? Call her. Ask for forgiveness.
The animal agriculture industry is filled with these generalities. Terms like “humane,” “grass-fed,” and “free-range” are deliberately ill-defined to create the illusion that mass slaughter on a world-wide scale could be ethical. These terms also allow companies to increase prices; guilt is one of the most easily preyed upon emotions.
Most anxieties can be summarized as either scrutiny of the self, or anticipation of the other. When confronted with veganism, both of these alarm bells ring. My question is: So what? Isn’t that what Yom Kippur is about? Facing those accusations that, on any other day, would have raised your defenses? To fully confront the scope of all this pain, and the daily mundaneness of it, too.
In a way, going to a livestock auction is very similar to Yom Kippur. I barely ate, if at all. There was a pit in my stomach all day. I was confronted with things I did not want to see. I wept. But bearing witness as animals get abused and shipped off to slaughter, much like knocking my closed fist against my chest during the Yom Kippur service, helps ward against the insidious effects of living in an apathetic, omnivore culture that regards animal welfare as extreme.
That is not to say vegans are without guilt. We use plastic, fast fashion, and non-hybrid automobiles. My only response is that the animal agriculture industry damages the planet and our bodies more than all three of those, combined. Animal agriculture involves the mutilation and murder of animals numbering in the trillions, every year. Most people do not grasp the difference between, say, a million and a trillion, so sometimes these statistics fail to make their impact. A million seconds is 11 days. A trillion seconds is over 31 thousand years.
Sometimes I run scenarios in my head while I am in the service, imagining rescuing an animal from that livestock auction. Maybe it is a response to the debilitating weight of helplessness while there, or maybe I am preparing myself to one day attempt it. I imagine some money changing hands, my lips pressed together, that catch in my throat as the farmer holds the power in his “yes,” or “no.” He helps me lift the animal, and I can smell the sick roiling off her damp fur. She shakes in my arms, and I shake with her in mine. I load her into my back seat, not knowing if she’ll survive the drive to the emergency vet. Missing a turn or two, eyes frantically shifting to the rearview mirror every mile. Naming her. And then I come to my senses, standing with my siddur in my hands, three pages behind and murmuring a prayer different than those around me.