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.