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For Yom Kippur, Atone to the Animals

By Gary Loewenthal

This Yom Kippur (belated), atone to the animals who suffered and died because you wanted them on your plate. Chances are, you barely gave any thought to the animals who became your food. It is almost a certainty that they had very short and miserable lives.

The vast majority of meat and dairy comes from "factory farm" animals who live in cramped, smelly, uncomfortable quarters. They never exercise, breathe fresh air, or engage in normal social behaviors. Their teeth, testicles, beaks, tails, toes, and horns are severed without painkillers. Babies are pulled from their mothers long before the end of their normal weaning period. Male calves are literally dragged away (since they're not steady on their feet yet) from their mothers when one or two days old, and sentenced to a 20-week Hell in the veal crate. Newborn male chicks produced by breeding hens are ground up or suffocated on their first day of life.

Modern farm animals are bred to be so top-heavy they can barely stand, and their hearts often give out. Artificial lighting and hormones make their already unnatural bodies go into overdrive. Half of all dairy cows are lame by the time they're five years old. Egg-laying hens look and act well on their way to death when they're trucked to the slaughterhouse after one or two years of hard labor.

There are many problems in the world. I don't have to remind you of them. Most we are not responsible for, except in remotely indirect ways. All of us have hurt people in the last year, and are obliged to make reconciliations and pledge to do better. But if you eat meat and dairy, it is a virtual guarantee that by far the most suffering you caused this year was to animals, and that, furthermore, it was all preventable. Therefore, you should atone to them. It is most meaningful to atone to victims who suffered and died as a direct result of your willful, voluntary, and discretionary actions.

Do you remember that the Lord commanded that animals be allowed to rest on the Sabbath? None of the animals that ended up on your plate were given rest on that day, or any day, including the days they were born and killed.

You may think, "but they're just standing there. Isn't that rest?"

Factory farm animals have no rest unless they are rescued. The animals stuck in huge sheds and tiny cages experience the unrest of a child held captive in a prison camp. There is not one second of play or relaxation. Even among the youngest, who should be running with bright eyes and blissful exuberance, the mood is morbid and somber. There is no room to do anything and their bodies ache from painful amputations and intensive breeding that works against their natural desires. The air is thick with the stench of feces and the aerosol of urine. There is nothing soft on which to lay down. The birds and pigs have no straw with which to make a bed. Most of the cows have to sleep on mud or dirt.

Rest is not the absence of action. In fact, the animals would like nothing more than to be let out of their cages, out of their crowded, smelly, windowless sheds, to walk into the sun, feel the real Earth beneath their feet, spread their wings, run at top speed with their legs, forage with their beaks, root in the mud with their snouts, and graze on huge expanses of pasture, to use their bodies and senses however distended and distorted more in line with how God designed them to be used, "according to their own kind." God gave these mistreated animals the tools and the desires to do all these things; they're denied ultimately because of you. The moment you stop buying meat, eggs, and dairy, the suffering will ease.

It is rather disturbing that Jews, of all people, are not only willfully ignorant of the suffering of their victims, but also devalue that suffering. Jews celebrate with cheese and eggs in blintzes as soon as Yom Kippur ends, oblivious to the fact that a veal calf spent a horrific, motherless life in chains so the mother cow would produce un-Godly amounts of milk. The celebrants don't care that the hens who produced the eggs lived in a space less than the size of a record album cover; that their feet became overgrown and their joints ached from constantly standing on wire grating; that their innate desire to build a nest was stifled; that they suffered from excruciating "prolapses" in which the uterus sticks to the genetically-enlarged egg and comes out with it.

"But they're just chickens," you might say. That's almost the same thing that enemies of the Jews said about Jews. "They're inferior, and their suffering should not be prevented, regretted, or taken seriously." No matter how many differences exist between chickens and humans, we have one fundamental, profound shared trait: we suffer. We suffer badly. We fear suffering. We desperately try to avoid it, to escape it.

Because animals lack some human outlets, their suffering may even be worse. They cannot use language to fully articulate their plight to the outside world although their body language and vocalizations are compelling. They probably cannot pray to God. They cannot rationalize their predicament. They cannot devise escape plans. They are just terrified. Many are babies. Some chicks are still peeping when they're on the slaughterhouse line, hanging upside-down, their feet shackled, smelling death all around them. They are only seven weeks old.

There is another important trait that animals share with humans: friendship. Chickens, cows, rabbits, ducks, and other farm animals express empathy and altruism toward others. On countless occasions, eyewitnesses have seen animals let the sick eat first, or have the best sleeping spots. Roosters and hens protect not only their young but their friends from the rain. Close companions may grieve deeply when their partner dies or is taken away. Many of us have seen this with our pets. Farm animals are no different.

Why do we treat these living souls so horribly? Why do we put their suffering out of our minds, and relish its products? Is everyone so caught up in their own troubles or their own indulgences that we're blind to the profound and widespread suffering that we cause?

Perhaps it is the very fact that the misery of farm animals is the result of our actions that we avoid thinking about it, or make excuses for it. Jews are famous for shouldering guilt, but acknowledging that you are complicit in torture is too much to bear. The mind fights it; the ego refuses to admit it. All our formidable defense mechanisms are mobilized; our cleverness at rationalization is put into effect, to shelter us from the most uncomfortable, incriminating realities.

And yet, once we have an inkling of the intense misery of modern food animals and knowledge of alternatives we never truly convince ourselves that it is acceptable to make animals suffer and die because we like the taste of their cooked flesh. No matter how clever we are, no matter how many layers of defense mechanisms are in place, we know without a doubt in our hearts that preventable cruelty is wrong.

We know that causing the weak and powerful to suffer on behalf of the strong and privileged is detestable. It goes against everything we were taught. It flagrantly disobeys the wish of God that we be merciful and humble. It clearly violates the Golden Rule. Were we the terrified calf or chick, we would want nothing so desperately as to have a normal life. We would beg for mercy. Were powerful aliens to land here aliens that saw us as we see chickens we would never consent to them enslaving and slaughtering us because we were considered a delicacy, or an essential ingredient in a religious ritual. The thought would sicken us and disgust us. It could never be justified.

And yet we do it. Every day, with nary a thought. How different it is to be the victimizer who shares in the spoils instead of the victim.

We can live without eggs. It's easy. I've done it for years. I used to eat challah, kugel, and honeycake (although there are egg-free recipes for all those dishes now). I used to cook omelets and matzoh brie and deviled eggs. My conscience compelled me to stop. I didn't wither away. I found ten other foods to take their place. Once I got past the angst of giving them up, it was barely a blip. I'm a better person for it. I'm no longer sentencing hens to a lifetime of misery just so I can have egg noodles during the High Holy Days or macaroons at Passover. There's no way that tickling my taste buds or continuing a food tradition can be considered morally equal to the hen's deep desire to be free of pain and suffering. I can no longer in good conscience keep making brisket or chopped liver or meatballs, or any food that inflicts misery and death on animals just to satisfy tradition or my pleasure.

And that is our crime. It's not like lamenting the fate of Jews in Russia, about which we can do little other than get angry. The solution to animal suffering suffering that is real and intense and going on this instant and widespread is literally right in front of us. On our plates. All we have to do is stop supporting cruelty. Changing your diet is trivially easy compared to the hardships endured by food animals.

Have a heart. Atone now and for the rest of your lives to the innocents living in squalid surroundings, barely able to move, suffering physically and mentally for our ingrained habits and indulgences. Your atonement will be felt PROFOUNDLY by the beneficiaries. I assure you. Please stop torturing them.

Then take a breath. Look around you. Look at the birds in flight. The squirrels in the trees. The tiny vole burrowing near the fence. Visit a farm sanctuary. Say hello to a big cow, with her big brown eyes. Hoist your child on your shoulders. Tell her or him that cows are good parents, too. That they're our friends. That they have cow friends that they hang out with, but also people friends. Just like the little guy or girl on top of your shoulders. "Can you moo like a cow? That's how they communicate."

They also communicate in more subtle ways. When they're grazing as a group, under the shade of a big oak tree, on a summer afternoon, enjoying each others' company, truly resting, at peace, summer after summer, they're saying "thank you." "Thank you, kind humans. Thank you, Jews. Thank you, people of all faiths. Thank you, humanists and Wiccans. Thank you, God, for letting us have peace, for letting us graze in the fields and nuzzle our young, for letting us enjoy Your sun and Your shade. Thank you for the humans. They are wonderful."

When you hear their thankyou's, you will have atoned. Your heart will soar and be filled with joy.

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