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Ki Tetzei(Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19)

Human Life

In this week's portion, we are commanded to help someone load and unload their animal if they are having difficulty. What if you find two people who both need help, one with unloading the animal and one with loading? The Sages say that you should help with the unloading first, because the animal is potentially in pain and therefore it takes precedence.

The principle of not causing pain to animals is a very important one in Torah. Animals, we believe, are here for us to use - but not abuse. This is a significant distinction. To use an animal for human needs - agriculture, transport, food, clothing - is not only permitted, it is considered doing the animal a favor. Instead of living a mundane and robotic existence, this gives it the opportunity to play a meaningful role in God's purpose for the Universe.

To cause an animal pain for no purpose, however, is completely prohibited. The way calves are treated to make tender veal, the way hens are kept for eggs, or the way many animals are transported nowadays is frowned upon by Judaism. Torah invented the idea of animal rights at a time when no other society even believed in human rights.

It is important, though, not to take the idea too far. A few years ago, high school students in America were surveyed. If they saw their dog and a stranger drowning and they could only save one, which would they save? Over 80 percent said they would save their dog.

My sense is that the reason for this response is not because these students were taught to value animals so much, but rather they have not been taught to value human beings enough. I don't believe that anyone who appreciates the value of human life could even consider saving an animal first. Only in a society that has lost its respect for human life can such an answer be given. And when violent crime is commonplace and the average child sees hundreds of deaths on TV and film, respect for human life is bound to suffer.

As with anything, a balance is needed. Animals are to be respected and appreciated. But human beings must be respected and appreciated much, much more. Do not substitute animals for people. As much as our fellow humans might sometimes frustrate and upset us, it is they, not animals, who are created in God's image.

Published: August 23, 2009

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Visitor Comments: 2

(2) Anonymous, September 12, 2012 9:05 PM

I believe that people "say" that they would save their pet animal's life over a stranger's but it is not actually what would happen.Over and over again I have seen or heard examples of this.I've seen examples of people abandoning thier pets when moving.Yet I have never seen anyone abondoning thier children.There was a newstory here about a child falling into the river.The neighbour's dog ran into the water to try and save him.The boys who were with him didn't try to save the dog - but they did try desparately to save the little boy.Nobody searched desparately for the dog's body but everybody did search desparately for the little boy's body.We have food/shelter refuges for people that have to refuse volunteers yet an animal refuge begs for volunteers.Most of the time when people go on vacation they take thier family, maybe even a friend or a friend of a friend who is basically a stranger - but they will easily leave thier pets behind. Basically, my point is what people say and do are actually quite diffferent. So do not worry about people choosing animals before humans - unless they need food! .....And I have known people who have eaten thier pets.

(1) SusanE, August 28, 2009 7:23 PM

Can You Explain Further?

Hello Rabbi, Thank you for this discussion about animal and human life. I understand the difference and why we should choose to save the human life. Here in the United States pets are given family member status so the distinction blurs. What I need is an explanation about is WHY most people would choose to save the life of a pet or of a stranded animal before they would save a human. Many of the people I know, would save an animal before saving their spouses. I am not outraged, I am perplexed.

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