SERMON: ACHAREI–MOT SHABBAT APRIL 26, 2003 Rabbi Moshe P. Weisblum
It is a well-known fact that people are ambivalent about animals. Some people love them, while others are allergic, and still others might be afraid. President George W. Bush and his wife always show respect and love for their own pets that happen to be dogs. He very often talks about his love for his dogs and his other animals in public.
But sometimes, this love and appreciation of our fellow beasts can go too far. Last year, Germany’s assembly was the first country in Europe that passed an amendment to their Constitution to give to animals rights that are equivalent to those of humans. People sometimes go so far with their devotion to their canine best friends that they even name humans after animals! In France, for example, there are those who feel that animals are more important than people. Here in this country, statistics show that people spend more money on their pets than on children. Last September, the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association (APPMA) conducted a survey where they found more than 63 million of the 105 million American households own at least one pet. And as this number grows each year, so too does pet spending. This year, Americans will spend $30 billion on pets, a number that has nearly doubled since 1994.
Let me share with you a vivid example of this increasing reality of people favoring animals. Once, I went to an elderly lady’s house in Edison, New Jersey. She said, "Rabbi, give me a blessing." So I blessed her, then she said, " Rabbi, can you bless my house?" So I blessed her house. Then she wanted me to bless her car, so I did that. I was about to leave, and she asked, "Rabbi, do you mind to give a blessing to my dog?" I said, "I need a Hebrew name,…" She said, "I named him Simcha after my husband." I looked at her, and I said, " just give me his mother’s Hebrew name." And she looked at me, and she said, "I don’t know..."
When we give a blessing, we need that person’s name and the mother’s name. It goes to show that this devotion has gone a little bit too far.
What does Judaism have to say about this issue? This week’s Torah portion gives us very clear instructions about animals. We are clearly instructed not to go to any extremes. On the one hand, in this Torah chapter, G-d forbids us to have any physical relations with animals. While on the other side, the Torah and the Code of Jewish Laws have instructed us that there are prohibitions to hunting animals for recreational purposes, implying a respect for the life of creatures great and small.
The great Jewish scholar, doctor and philosopher, Ramban, wrote in numerous places, of the importance of giving respect to animals. There is a famous story in the Talmud, about Rabbi Yehudah Hanassi. The story is about a calf that is just about to be slaughtered. At this time, Rabbi Yehudah was seated in front of the Babylonian House of Study with his disciples. When the calf broke away, it hid its head under Rabbi Yehudah’s skirt and lowed pitifully as though pleading, "Save me!" Rabbi Yehudah, raised his head, and said to the doomed calf, "Go, go, for this you were created, this is your destiny."
After the Rabbi’s reaction, there was a decision in the heavenly court. The court decided since he had no pity, that he would have to suffer as a consequence. The Rebbe suffered for many years with an affliction to his teeth. One day, thirteen years later, Rabbi Judah’s main servant was sweeping the house. Seeing some young weasels lying there, she was about to sweep them away. Rabbi Judah stood up and screamed, "Let them be!" For it is written, ‘His tender mercies are over all his works.’ Psalm 145." The Heavenly Court took notice of his compassion on the creatures and he was released from his own suffering; his pain came to an end.
In our times, the greatest scholar in the Twentieth Century, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, was asked a question once regarding the killing of animals. The Rabbi illustrated his answer with the treatment of pesty animals in the Sukkah. During the festival of Sukkot, while enjoying the rituals, what was one to do if all of a sudden, there was an onslaught of bees? A student asked the Rabbi, "Are we allowed to kill the bees?" He answered, "If it really is disturbing it’s OK to kill them, but we prefer that you take a big cup or jar, and just cover them, and release them when you are done in the Sukkah." In conclusion, he expressed a great compassion for G-d’s creatures. It is clear that G-d loves his creatures; we see that from the story of Noah as well as many other places in the Bible.
We learn this week in the Torah chapter, and all the sources above, that Judaism is against extremes. On one hand we are not allowed to kill animals for fun, while on the other hand, we are forbidden to have physical relations with animals. Too much love or too much carelessness is forbidden. We have to take the middle path and not veer to either extreme. We love animals, but we must realize there are limits given for everyone’s safety and protection.
May you all enjoy this beautiful season and enjoy G-d’s creatures.