22 Av, 5761
Although it's true that I am an animal lover, I actually did not make the following Torah law up…
"Rav said: 'It is forbidden for a person to eat before giving food to his animal.'" From where do we learn this? Would you believe this week's Torah portion? "For it is written: 'I will give grass in the field for your animals' and afterwards 'and you will eat and be satiated' (Deuteronomy 11:15-in the second paragraph of the
Shema)." (Tractate Berachos 40a.) From the order of the verse, our sages detect a hint that we are supposed to feed our animals before dining ourselves. (According to some authorities, this mitzvah applies only to food, but not to drink. For we see that Rivkah gave Avraham's servant,
Eliezer, to drink before his camels [Genesis 24:19].)
What kind of mitzvah is this? We have to feed Fido first? Who's the master around here?
Although this mitzvah rings of confused priorities, Maimonides
explains what's really going on in terms we can understand. "The seed of our patriarch,
Avraham-Israel, upon whom the Holy One, Blessed Be He, bestowed the good of the Torah, commanding them in just statutes and laws-they are merciful on all of creation. And this is the attribute of the Holy One, Blessed Be He, which He commanded us to emulate, as it says: 'His mercy is upon all His creations' (Psalms 145:9). And whoever is merciful upon others, there will be mercy upon him, for it is written: '…He will grant you mercy, and be merciful with you and increase you…' (Deuteronomy 13:18)."
(Mishnah Torah, Hilchos Avodim 9:8.) From this quote we see that Maimonides understands that the root of this mitzvah to serve our animals dinner first is to imbue us with the desirable Divine traits of mercy and benevolence.
Now, of course, acting mercifully and benevolently is always a nice thing to do, but it is important that we understand the full implication of this mitzvah's lesson. On the surface, this mitzvah seems like a concession to animal rights radicals. Is that what it is? Or is there a message in our mitzvah that goes beyond kindness to animals?
Sometimes it seems (to me, at least) that the complete message of animal rights activists is only to improve the lot of our furry friends. That is the beginning of their message, and it is also the end. The Torah agrees with the starting point of treating animals in the most compassionate manner possible, but that's only the beginning. The most important reason to be kind to animals is to engender in ourselves the Divine trait of kindness and feelings of mercy and compassion. The mitzvah of feeding our animals first is the beginning of a world outlook that focuses on generosity and concern for the welfare of others.
The Torah understands very well that showing proper concern for others is not always easy, especially when we feel that there are significant differences between them and ourselves. Acting with compassion and mercy is a requirement if we are to fulfill the great potential that G-d planted in us, creating us in His image. We need proper training to achieve this potential. One component of our training program is the mitzvah we are discussing today. It's good for our animals, but even better for us.
As Maimonides writes, when we act with mercy in our dealings with others, measure for measure, G-d deals in a merciful manner with us. It is not even necessary to mention that today especially we need to do everything we can to increase
G-d's mercy upon us. We are living in times when it is more obvious than ever how much we need
G-d's mercy and how little we can guarantee with our own strength and resources. We shouldn't treat animals with deference because they are our masters. We are gentle and kind with them because G-d is our master. May we merit fulfilling this lofty potential that G-d bestowed in us, thereby earning the reward that Maimonides teaches is the bounty of those who walk in
G-d's ways: "And whoever is merciful upon others, there will be mercy upon him, for it is written: '…He will grant you mercy, and be merciful with you and increase you…'"
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