Oy, life gets hard sometimes, no? We ride the roller coaster of our daily lives, sometimes barely hanging on, and looking for moments of respite from the craziness. For those of us who are pet lovers (dogs, cats, birds, fish, iguanas, etc.), one of the sweetest times of the day is when we come home to our beloved animal companions. Our animals often seem to have a supernatural ability to “get us,” and to know when we need extra special love and attention.
The Torah seems to recognize this special connection between us and animals from the very beginning. In the creation story of Genesis chapter 1, animals are formed on the fifth day, right before human beings are created on the sixth day. So, one might say that, after the stress of being created, we immediately had fluffy, sweet animals to turn to so that we could de-stress. In the second creation story, found in Genesis chapter 2, animals were brought to Adam, both as potential life-mates, and to be named. They’ve always been our “buddies” here on earth, and the earliest Jews seemed to celebrate this in our texts.
The rabbis were likewise quite concerned about treatment of animals. They created a term, tzaar baalei chayim, which referred to cruelty towards animals. We were expressly forbidden from treating animals cruelly or unfairly. Though we may choose to employ them in our households or on our farms, or we may eat certain animals, all treatments of animals was to always be fair, humane, and as cruelty-free as possible.
Additionally, you remember that special day that we get once a week, during which time we are required to rest? Well, animals have always been required to have a Shabbat, as well. Just as we need a break from work, we were commanded to include our animals in this cessation of labor, especially if we used our animals around our households.
Thus, it is considered a great mitzvah to take care of animals, and to relieve their suffering. I’ve personally done this by always choosing to adopt the animals that I bring into my family. I feel that giving homes to those in shelters is consonant with the Jewish mandates to care for animals in need.
Interestingly, despite the prevalent Jewish attitudes towards animals, Jewish theological thought has been insistent that animals do not have souls. Jewish thinkers have expressed that only human beings have souls of divine nature. As a life-long pet owner, here is where I take issue with our tradition. Looking into the eyes of my cats, I have seen great wisdom, sensitivity, and compassion. They seem to understand our moods, know when we are in pain, and know when we need love. If these few traits, and so many others, are not hints of divinity, I’m not sure what is.
This week, most unfortunately, I had to say goodbye to my beloved calico cat, Precious. I adopted her in early 2001 when I found myself living alone for the first time in the great big city of Manhattan. She had been found in a basement in Brooklyn with little babies of her own, and she had been saved by a local shelter. The babies were adopted quickly, but Precious had been there a few months. I like to think that she was waiting for me.
I took her home, and she immediately became a warm, nurturing, and maternal presence. Though I had grown up with dogs, Precious soon converted my whole family into fervent “cat people.” She helped me ride the ups and downs of life as I attended rabbinical school, took my first pulpit in New York City, and then made the move to Long Island.
Unfortunately, cancer took her from me this week. I know that her presence in my life was a blessing, just as so many of us feel that our animal buddies are gifts in our lives. I am confident that she had a little, beautiful, angelic soul, and that she was sent to me as a present from God. She was, as so many special animals are, a unique form of therapy – bringing a sense of peace and comfort at just the right times.
May we all take some time this spring to appreciate these precious creatures who spend their lives with us. During this season of freedom and redemption, I pray that some of us might even choose to provide a sense of freedom to a little animal currently living at a shelter, and who is praying for his or her own redemption. And maybe we’ll be inspired to add a sense of holiness to our relationships with our pets, and we’ll say a blessing, appropriate when seeing a beautiful animal: Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech HaOlam, she-kachah lo ba-olamo. Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has (animals) such as these in the world. Amen.