Earlier in the year, our class watched What Remains: The Life and Work of Sally Mann (2005) – a documentary, as its name suggests, about the life and works of the American photographer Sally Mann – as part of our course ‘Dying, Death and Bereavement’. It was a funny juxtaposition of art and the practical rabbinic elements of the module, involving cemetery visits and funeral run-throughs, but exploring it through art gave us the space to reflect on death as both a philosophical and emotional concept. One of the influences on her work exhibited and published just prior to the documentary, What Remains (2003), was the death of a man, on her property, who escaped from prison and killed himself. I remember her vividly talking about the blood that remained on the grass.
We read in this week’s Torah portion that:
You shall not pollute the land in which you live; for blood pollutes the land, and the land can have no expiation for blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of the one who shed it.
You shall not defile the land in which you live, in which I Myself abide, for I the Eternal abide among the Israelite people.
The JPS Torah Commentary remarks that ‘Whereas compensation for murder is provided for in all law codes of the ancient Near East, Israel alone maintains that the homicide must pay with his life. Otherwise, the land becomes polluted with the consequence that neither God nor Israel can abide there, a concept expressed in Leviticus 18:15-28’. I do not believe in the death penalty – that a state, or a ‘blood-avenger’ can or should kill a murderer. The rabbis of the Talmud put significant legal measures in place to avoid capital punishment, suggesting that they are, at the very least, deeply uncomfortable with the (theoretical) practice. I do not want to get into this here, though; instead, I want to think about the broader point: that there is a need to take responsibility for the ways our behaviour, and that of society as a whole, desecrates the very world we live in.
Blood pollutes the land. Our nations were created with bloodshed; our societies built by bloodshed. The land is littered with the blood of the innocent, who died as a direct result of the greed and malpractice of corporations and people in power. Not just those who have died in pointless wars, but those who died from contaminated water sources, from diseases which thrive because of how we have changed the landscape, from famine caused by the demand the west places on the resources of the rest of the world.
The Talmud makes it clear that you cannot buy your way out of this (b. Ketubot 37b) – and the behaviour of multinationals makes it clear that this is true in practice too; no fine is so big that it creates a financial incentive for those at the top to behave morally, rather than to bend the rules and turn a profit. How then do we cause companies to change their ways? Is firing those in charge, the corporate equivalent of the death penalty, the answer? As individuals we have very little power, but, as a group, consumers have a voice. When we decide our ethics are more important than short term convenience and cost, we can and will create a world where the Eternal can abide amongst us once more.
Daisy Bogod LBC rabbinic student
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.