Animals, Sacrifices, and a Farmer’s Daughter

Bunny FuFu was the meanest creature I’d ever yet encountered in my very young world.  Those memories are fuzzy now because I was so very young, but I still remember how huge that white rabbit seemed, with red eyes and sharp teeth.  I’d feed him carrots through the mesh of his rabbit hutch, trying not to let him bite my fingers, but Bunny FuFu’s favorite food was hotdogs.  He was a herbivore gone mad and turned carnivore and the stuff of preschool nightmares, but, oddly enough, he was also a gift by a well-meaning neighbor.

I mean, what little girl doesn’t love a fluffy bunny?

After a few memories of the terror Bunny FuFu induced, I also remember him leaving, going to another neighbor who ate Bunny FuFu.  I don’t remember being sad about that, but more relieved that I no longer had to fear his teeth.  To a farmer’s daughter, this was the way of life.  I was used to petting adorable baby animals that we’d one day have on our table and I felt no conflict between the two.  I could pet a calf and feed it a bottle on a cousin’s dairy farm and then have a hamburger for lunch.  It all was just part of a circle of life that was simply apparent.

So it is with that background that I sat, trying to understand, over 30 years later and a few thousand miles distant, why someone who enjoyed eating meat couldn’t understand the animal sacrifices in the Mishkan.  (Traveling tabernacle that the Jews carried with them before entering Israel.)  It surprised me that a Jew would have trouble reading passages describing how the animal sacrifices would be offered, which to me sounded far more humane than most non-kosher slaughterhouses or hunting trips.

It was a reminder that most Jews are urban dwellers, people far removed from where their food comes from even if they are well versed in the laws which must be followed to make it kosher.

Jewish law was far ahead of its time when it comes to animal rights.  There are multiple passages in Torah dealing with how you must treat your animals and impressing upon the Jew the responsibility that comes from owning animals.  Kosher slaughter, too, is a very restrictive way in which animals can be killed that is meant to minimize their suffering.  To a farmer’s daughter, this all seemed very civilized and good.  It reminded me of the affection my grandfather had for his milk cows.  He knew them each by name and they would always line up in order to be milked.  They knew which cow went first and which one went last.  He’d give them a friendly pat or scratch behind the ears as he milked them and talk to them.  He was also with them when it was time for them to be slaughtered, their milking days done.  Nothing was wasted and he allowed himself to be sad, but showed the same care in bringing them death as he did for them in life.

Nowadays, milk comes from a factory farm.  The cows have no names and they have no pasture to walk in from in their order.

To me, the passages in the Torah that speak of the animal sacrifices have no conflict with those that speak of being kind to your animals.  The person bringing the sacrifice must inspect the animal.  This forces them to be familiar with the animal.  It can’t just be an object since they must go over every part of the animal several times, looking for a blemish.  Only then can they bring the animal to the courtyard for slaughter.  Then, in a part that really is touching to me, the person bringing the sacrifice must lay their hands on the head of the animal and say blessings.  It’s no coincidence this conjures the image of my husband’s hands on the Challah we eat for Shabbat as he blesses it and also my grandfather’s hands on his milk cows.  A Jew has to touch this animal to bless it, he has to feel the warmth of its fur or feathers and face the reality of the life within it, knowing what he will have to do next.  This isn’t supposed to be an easy act, but one that brings him into the moment and reminds him of the weight of what he is doing.

And then, the slaughter itself, done according to kosher law, quickly, with as little pain to the animal as humanly possible.

Unlike most Jews, I have killed an animal to eat it.  It was chickens and fish, but there is still the same grainy reality to that moment.  You spill blood and it is hot and not unlike your own.  No matter how swiftly I cut, death takes a moment or two and that moment seems like forever and I feel in that moment, connected to that animal.  I suffer, too, waiting for the movement to cease and the eye to glaze over, hoping I’ve used my knife well and death comes quickly.  I can only imagine that moment for a larger animal.  I know I’ve contemplated mortality in those moments with smaller animals, understanding that death comes to us all and it’s how we live our lives that’s really important, not trying to avoid the inevitable end.  I can only imagine how visceral that feeling would be for Jew bringing a sin offering to the Mishkan, realizing this animal whose blood is on his hands and whose eye he now watches the life leave…has taken his place.  I think it’s supposed to be a difficult, emotional moment.

The difference, though, is that I can imagine it, my mindset closer to the ancient one than someone who has lived separate from their food.

In most cases, most of the animal sacrifice is eaten, either by the Priests or both the Priests and the person who brought it.  For most of the sacrifices, only a portion was burned on the altar.  To me, this is little different than taking Challah.  The portions burned are generally the portions Jews aren’t allowed to eat anyway, so it’s better to a farmer’s daughter’s mind that they be raised up in a sacrifice than wasted.  Other sacrifices were completely burned on the altar, hide and all, but again, it’s giving a portion of the animals we already would have eaten to G-d.

It’s a reminder of my own foreignness to this people I hope to join, that even after the Mikvah, I will come to the Torah with a unique perspective, with different life experiences than other Jews.  When I’ve told stories of my childhood on a farm at the Shabbat table before, it’s always been a novelty, people reminded of stories from the Ba’al Shem Tov or long lost great grandparents on a European shtetl.  Growing up on a farm isn’t really common among non-Jews anymore, either, but it’s even more unusual to religious Jews, most of whom need to grow up in urban places where a Synagogue is within walking distance.  Add to that my travels and experiences including years lived in Alaska and, well…I’m never going to be able to just blend in.

I like to think that’s all part of G-d’s plan.  I like to think that some Jews he decides should be born as non-Jews so that they can have those unique experiences and perspectives and bring them back to their people, that we are sparks that were scattered out among the nations for a purpose, maybe even chosen because we’d be resilient enough to find our way home.

As we celebrate the Exodus and Passover, I do feel like our family is drawing closer to that day, bit by bit.

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