In an essay titled, “Shoes and the Soul,” Rabbi Norman Lamm wrote, “On Yom Kippur, none may wear leather shoes, an object which, in order to benefit man, necessitated the end of some poor animal’s life…A people which, on its holiest day, will refuse to wear shoes made of the skin of an animal, is certainly concerned that God’s creatures exist without harm.”
Rabbi Lamm continues, “This is the reason for the law against ne’ilat hasandal (wearing leather shoes) on Yom Kippur. This day is the culmination, the climax, of that ten-day period in which we speak mostly of life. Every day, three times we prayed: remember us unto life. We pleaded with God, requesting that He inscribe us in the Book of Life. Yom Kippur itself is par excellence, the day when we celebrate divine compassion and mercy. It is the day when we acknowledge that ‘His passion extends over all His creatures.’ On Yom Kippur, therefore, none may wear leather shoes, an object which, in order to benefit man, necessitates the end of an animal’s life.”
As I prayed for life on Yom Kippur, these words echoed within me. They were highlighted by a recurring verse in the Yom Kippur service: “There is no difference between man and animal for all is vanity.”
Over two years ago, after learning about the cruelty and brutality characterizing the meat industry, and specifically factory farming, I decided to stop eating animals. Though I knew that becoming a vegetarian wouldn’t instantly reform the entire industry, it was my personal protest to a commercialized system that smarted of the antithesis of ideals and values that not only reflected my personal views, but also, the views of the Torah and Jewish tradition that I was raised with.
I remember my shock at discovering that the kosher meat at the Shabbat table was delivered from the same factory farms as non-kosher meat and that, before being inflicted with unspeakable torture for the sole purpose of my enjoyment, the chunk of glazed carcass on my plate was once a living being. I was horrified by the prospect that the meat which was meant to elevate the sanctity of Shabbat was in fact a result of a process that opposes holiness. It is a process of animals being torn from their mothers upon birth, hormone injections that cause immense pain, broken bones due to cramped space and rough handling and malfunctioning equipment.
However, as with many things, though I continued to passionately believe in my reasons for being a vegetarian, over time, it became a part of my life that I simply took for granted.
But this year, the ritual and prayer of Yom Kippur inspired me to stop and re-think the reality that we are living in. Yom Kippur is the day upon which we stand before God with raw and complete honesty, and reflect upon life: our lives, and the life of all creation. It is the day when we aspire to be the purest version of ourselves that we can be. And part of such a day is being honest about our treatment of the lives of animals.
I am often questioned by skeptical carnivores regarding whether I will eat my portion of the karban pesach when mashiach, the messiah, arrives. My answer is that before worrying about what we eat when mashiach arrives, we must first worry about making this world a space worthy of Divine Presence and worthy of redemption. And I believe that part of this process includes deeper sensitivity and care for creatures weaker than ourselves.