Caring for God's Creatures
Animals are God's creatures too, and He wants us to make sure to treat them right. This week's portion tells us some of the ways we should be kind to animals, even caring for their feelings by letting a calf stay with its mother after it's born. The Torah is full of guidelines how to be sensitive and caring to every one of God's creatures, whether they fly, swim, walk on two feet or four.
In our story, a kid gets a taste of farm living, and learns a lesson in kindness at the same time.
It was still dark out when a tug on my arm brought me out of my nice deep sleep. "Good morning Barry, time to wake up!"
Time to wake up? Was this some kind of joke or just a bad dream? They say you can take the boy out of the city, but you can't take the city out of the boy, and it's really true. When I made plans to spend spring break with my cousins on my uncle's farm, I thought it would be a good change of scenery and a chance for some fresh air - you know, like a vacation in the country. I had no idea that getting up every day before dawn was going to be part of the deal!
Now on my very first morning there, as my cousin Jonnie tried to wake me up, I did what any self-respecting city boy would - I pulled the blanket over my head, and pretended not to hear him.
But I guess stubbornness runs in the family, because the kid didn't give up. He playfully tugged on my blanket, and said in a voice way too cheerful for that hour, "C'mon cousin, soon the sun will be out, and the animals are waiting."
They may be waiting - but I was sleeping. I held on tight. But my skinny arms were no match for my muscle-bound cousin, who had been spending his time lifting a hoe and a pitchfork while my idea of exercise was carrying home an extra-large pie from the local pizza shop.
I saw this was going to be a losing battle. "Okay Jonnie, you win."
I pulled myself out of bed, dressed and the two of us went out into the field. I looked around and took a deep breath. I had to admit it was beautiful. I'd seen a few sunsets in my time, but a sunrise was a whole new experience.
We started our chores and after a while Jonnie called out, "Okay, breakfast time!"
Great! You wouldn't know it, but there's a lot to do to run a farm, and by the time we finished our early morning routine of chopping, carrying, and fixing, I was as hungry as a horse. I could smell my Aunt Becky's homemade blueberry muffins wafting out of the farmhouse kitchen and my mouth began to water.
I started heading toward the house, when my cousin called me back. "Hey, where do you think you're going?" he asked.
"I'm going to eat. Didn't you say it was breakfast time?"
My cousin laughed. "Yeah, but I meant it's breakfast time for the animals. We have to throw corn to the chickens and turkeys and bring hay for the cows. Then we can eat."
Maybe the kid had gotten too much fresh air or something, because I think he was confused. "Wait a minute, haven't you got things backwards? Aren't we the people around here? Aren't we supposed to be the ones who eat first? I'm starving, and we've been working all morning while the cows have been sleeping. I'm sure Bossy won't mind waiting for us to grab a quick breakfast first."
I thought my logic was perfect, but my cousin shook his head. "No way. The Torah teaches we have to be kind to animals. We're not allowed to hunt them for sport, we can't muzzle farm animals when they're working so they can nibble food along the way, and we can't even make two kinds of animals who don't get along with each other work together."
That was interesting. I like animals too, and wouldn't want to hurt them, but still, what did that have to do with my breakfast?
Jonnie saw my quizzical look and explained. "The Torah even tells us that we have to care so much about our animals, that we have feed them breakfast before we even feed ourselves. They depend on us, you know."
Wow, that really was caring! Well, we fed the animals, and maybe I was imagining it, but they really did seem grateful for the breakfast. And you know what? I think even my breakfast tasted better knowing there weren't any hungry cows out there waiting for me to chow down. That early morning I learned a lot about being on a farm, and a lot about being a Jew. You could really say that thanks to Jonnie, my eyes got opened in more ways than one.
Q. How did Barry feel at first about feeding the animals before he ate his own breakfast?
A. He felt that he should come first and the animals could wait.
Q. How did he feel in the end?
A. He felt like it was a good idea after Jonnie explained how God made the farm animals dependent on our kindness, and wants us to be so kind to them that we sometimes even put their needs before our own.
Q. Why is it important to be kind to animals?
A. God gave us the Torah as a guideline to help us grow into the best and most spiritual people possible. One of the most important traits we need to inculcate is being caring and kind. We learn how to be kind by observing God's kindness in the world. God extends His kindness to every creature, and wants us to learn from His example and do the same.
Q. Does being kind to animals mean we should never eat or use them? Why or why not?
A. We are allowed to use the world - including animals - for our own reasonable needs, such as food, clothing, etc. But we should use no more than we need, and even then only in a respectful and humane way. In a deeper sense, when we use animals properly, we are actually doing something good for their souls.
Ages 10 and Up
Q. If we have to choose between being kind to a person or to an animal, which kindness should take precedence, and why?
A. The human being takes precedence. While we are to be sensitive to all life - as all life is sacred - we have a special obligation to our fellow human beings. A human being has a special spiritual make up, and a special task within creation, and is not merely another animal that happens to be able to speak, etc. The Torah and especially its mystical teachings explain this in great detail. However, this is not a license to be cruel or careless in our interactions with the animal kingdom. In fact, the Torah goes out of its way to teach us that part of our unique 'humanness' is that we are to act humane to all life.
Q. Is there anything we can learn from the animal kingdom?
A. There is plenty. God imbued different creatures with various positive traits and wants us to learn from them. For example, our sages advise us to learn industriousness from the ant, which constantly works to fulfill its tasks, and modesty from the cat, which is careful to take care of its personal needs in private. Elsewhere we are taught to be as 'light as an eagle, strong as a lion, bold as a leopard, and swift as a deer to do the will of our Creator.' The animal world, in fact the whole world, has been imbued by God with wisdom from which we can learn.