References to blood appear at least sixty-five times in the Torah, and more, depending on how you do the counting and excluding references to menses. In this parashah, it appears primarily in connection with sacrifices (Lev.16:14-15, 16:18-19, 16:27, 17:3-6).
But the more intriguing reference is in Lev. 17:10-14, where we are told:
And any man from the house of Israel and from the aliens who will reside among them who will eat any blood: then I shall set my face against the person who eats the blood, and I shall cut him off from among his people. Because the flesh’s life is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your lives, because it is the blood that makes atonement for life. On account of this I have said to the children of Israel: every person among you shall not eat blood, and the alien who resides among you shall not eat blood. And any man from the children of Israel and from the aliens who reside among them who will hunt game, animal or bird, that may be eaten: he shall spill out its blood and cover it with dust. Because all flesh’s life: its blood is one with its life. So I say to the children of Israel: you shall not eat the blood of all flesh – because all flesh’s life: it is its blood. Everyone of those who eat it will be cut off.
The p’shat, the plain meaning, is clear: Don’t eat blood. Kashrut has taken up this challenge for centuries.
But as Reconstructionists, and Jews, why stop with the plain meaning when digging deeper can add insight to the way we live our lives?
Why do we not eat blood? Because the life of the flesh — the nefesh — is in its blood. Obviously, the concern is not for the literal life of the animal. As long as we don’t consume the blood, we may kill and eat the animal. In fact, the name of parsha, Akharey Mot, means “After Death.” (The death referred to is that of Aaron’s sons for placing alien fire.) So while killing an animal for food is not the problem, eating blood is, and it is no trivial matter. The penalty is to be cut off from one’s people. So perhaps eating the blood makes us unfit to be with those living proper human lives.
The first mention of blood in the Torah is God’s statement to Cain: “Your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. And now you’re cursed from the ground that opened its mouth to take your brother’s blood from your hand.” (Gen. 4:10-11). Here we have a killing and the pouring out of blood into the ground. The blood cries out from the ground over the injustice, leading to Cain’s curse. He is to be alone, roaming over the earth, an earth that will not give its potency to him.
So if I want to live my life so I do not eat the blood — the life — of others, how am I to do this? Are there ways in which I act toward others so that I consume their life? And if I do this, am indeed destined to be cut off from my people?
To begin to answer this sort of question, I turn to our tradition for sources that help me think through the dimensions of the issue. In this case, I found the Rosh Hodesh (New Moon/Month) blessings helpful. They present a catalogue of what is good about life: “a long life, a life of peace, a life of goodness, a life of blessing, a life of nourishment and sustenance, a life of bodily health, a life with awe for the divine, a life of love for Torah, a life free of disgrace and shame, a life of happiness and honor, a life of integrity and discernment, intelligence and knowledge.” So perhaps when we commit acts that deny these aspects of life to others, we (metaphorically) eat their blood.
Do we then receive the curse of being cut off from our communities? Perhaps with each act that denies these blessings to others, we ourselves become progressively so calloused that we become incapable of living a human life, and thereby place ourselves into a spiritual exile. Toward the end of the parashah, we are told, “And you shall observe my laws and my judgments, which, when a human will do them, he’ll live through them. I am YHWH.” So ultimately, perhaps the message of this Torah portion is deeper: that living a human life means that we must live in a way that does not infringe on the lives around us