One of my favorite lessons to teach at Sunday school (although I fully admit I have a lot of favorite lessons!) involves the Jewish view on the treatment of animals. Every autumn, our Temple does a blessing of the pets ceremony right before the school day begins, so I know amidst the dogs, cats, birds, and fish, the kids all have animals on the brain. We talk about our pets for a minute or two before we begin the lesson, asking “So, what does Judaism have to say about animals?”
Most in the class don’t have any idea, or can only guess. Some can talk about how animals are supposed to rest on Shabbat as we do, and one or two venture to the topic about which animals we don’t eat because of kosher laws. It’s understandable, because at this point the curriculum has been teaching about the holidays, basic Torah information and stories, and important figures like Moses. In their minds, animals and Torah seem to be entirely unrelated, save for the random animal appearance in story.
I love being able to open their worlds a bit to show them all the ways in which Judaism protects the rights of animals and commands us to be concerned about their well being. Some of them are quite ahead of their time, in my opinion:
- It is forbidden to cut the leg off of a living animal
- If an animal is to be slaughtered for human consumption, it is to be done in the most humane way possible
- Animals who are working in the service of humans cannot be beaten, and it cannot be forced to work an excessive amount or in an unnatural manner
- Animal owners are required to care for all the basic needs the animal might have, and be aware there might be special circumstances where their care might have to go above and beyond normal
- It is a mitzvah to help an animal with any burden it may be carrying if the animal happens to be struggling
- It is permissible to break Shabbat observances in some cases if it involves helping a hurt animal
(For a great overview of these and other teachings about animals and Judaism, you can check out this article from My Jewish Learning.)
The lesson ends with each of us talking about what we can do to help and care for the animals in our lives (like pets), in addition to the animals of the earth (like endangered species and animals living in a shelter). The kids always love hearing about how their faith – something nebulous, vague, and often confusing at this young age – happens to have rules that they, even at 9 and 10, are interested in and can totally support.
I found myself thinking about this as FH and I celebrated the anniversary of adopting our cat, Eva. We first brought Eva into our home just over a year ago, and our lives have changed only for the better with her around. And because she is an older cat who had lived on the streets and in a shelter prior to coming home with us, I hope she thinks the same is true for her.
As I reflect on the whole experience – talking about adoption, actually going to the shelter and picking her up, having her as a permanent member of our family – I can’t help but think about the ways in which my thinking and behavior have transformed thanks to this decision. At first, I was filled with excitement over having a new pet, and pride for the decision FH and I had made: we adopted a cat! Look at how awesome we are!
As time has gone on, though, I really find myself agreeing with those bumper stickers that ask “Who Rescued Who?” Adopting forced me to look at the conditions in our society that lead to stray or unwanted pets; finally owning said pet forced me to look within myself to see how else I could give more of myself and cause a positive change for others. I see a lot of correlation to how we’re asked to treat animals and how I myself see possibilities for the future:
- It is forbidden to cut the leg off of a living animal – How do I avoid unnecessary pain or difficulty for others?
- If an animal is to be slaughtered for human consumption, it is to be done in the most humane way possible – If I must do something that will cause someone pain, how can I do so with the greatest regard for their well being?
- Animals who are working in the service of humans cannot be beaten, and it cannot be forced to work an excessive amount or in an unnatural manner – How will I make sure to treat those who make my life easier with dignity and respect?
- Animal owners are required to care for all the basic needs the animal might have, and be aware there might be special circumstances where their care might have to go above and beyond normal – Do I care for the basic needs of those around me – family, friends, neighbors, community members – and do I go above and beyond when necessary?
- It is a mitzvah to help an animal with any burden it may be carrying if the animal happens to be struggling Do I offer a hand to help others who are struggling with their burdens?
- It is permissible to break Shabbat observances in some cases if it involves helping a hurt animal Am I willing to go outside my comfort zone or the established norm to help someone in need?
I find it so interesting that my cat and her adoption have given me the opportunity to see how I can take this experience and use it to better myself and the lives of so many others. I hope that this time next year, I’ll be reflecting on some of the good I’ve been able to do, or the ways in which I have grown from my thinking and ideas today.
So while the adoption papers say that I rescued her, and I gave her a new chance at a happy existence, I also firmly believe she did rescue me – and gave me a new chance at a more fulfilling life.