If you ask me why he laughed, I’ll say: your guess is as good as mine. Who am I to understand a tzaddik? At the time, I thought I must be missing something.
Then he laughed more, and I thought he must be seeing this question from some larger perspective.
A much larger perspective.
* * *
We all know – or aspire to know – that all things come from G-d. But that Esther was given an allergy to cats is too ironic for words. To say she likes them is an understatement. She’s felt an affinity for them ever since childhood. She feels their pain. Understands what they’re saying when they purr.
So she does what she can, since she can’t bring them home. And Jerusalem provides her with ample opportunities.
A cat in a religious Jerusalem neighborhood is a persona non grata, regarded with contempt. Reviled, disdained, and viewed with suspicion, the cat’s shied away from and scorned, shooed away harshly if it dares come near. It scares us when we take out the garbage. Children stamp their feet to see it freeze in mid-motion, shout to make it startle, throw stones to make it run.
The children think this is fun. And their parents don’t mind, if the kids keep their distance. For the lowly cat reminds some of us pleasantly, if only half-consciously, of our own exalted position in Hashem’s Creation — measurable in direct proportion to the separation between our species. In other words, holiness has nothing to do with cats. Felines in warm houses far away (whose owners don’t know better)…felines such as these may well be kings and queens before the fire, sleek as panthers and petted and trusting and licking milk from their whiskers, but the cats of whom we speak…..The parents say they’re dirty, and that’s the truth. Their eyes are infected; their eyes dart here and there. Their fur’s matted and rangy; they carry diseases, slink along like thieves, hiss as if we’re enemies, dash too close, like lightning in the night, arching their spines and drawing their claws. Who needs such animals?
We do our best to ignore them. We realize they keep down the rat population, and for this we’re grateful.
When springtime comes and the kittens are born, the littlest humans respond. They bring out saucers of milk and stand there watching, lips parted in wonder.
This soon passes. The kittens become cats. The children get bigger.
But we were talking about Esther.
She can’t bear the sights and sounds of their starvation. Especially the kittens. Can’t bear that meowing of hungry babies. So much meowing! So many kittens!
She’s discussed it with Israel’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. They say they’re overwhelmed. They’re doing the best they can, short of killing them all. They haven’t the means to deal with the situation.
She started taking them scraps, out behind her building’s garbage bin, where they congregate and prowl. She knew this wouldn’t solve the larger problem, but what could she do? She heard them from her window.
After a while, they started recognizing her, and got used to her, relaxing bit by bit their brittle wariness of this human, and at last, after a number of weeks, would on occasion entwine themselves in her steps as she made her approach. But the neighbors complained, and with good reason. “You’ll just increase the cat population. You think you’re doing them a favor? They’ll get used to being fed and it’ll be harder for them to survive on their own. And they won’t kill the rats anymore!”
One neighbor told her how the cats were coming fearlessly now into the entrance of the building. “I’m scared of them, if you want to know.”
“Really?” said Esther. “But they’re more scared of you than you could ever be of them.”
Just then a gaunt, ill-looking kitten appeared at their feet, meowing piercingly, and the woman jumped. “You see! You just don’t understand. You’re being kind to them but cruel to me. And they bother my husband now when he goes out early to daven.”
That was it. Esther stopped feeding them. But the cats didn’t go away. Their numbers didn’t diminish with time. That piteous meowing.
* * *
She went to ask a shaylah.
“So,” said Rabbi Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg, “can’t you move away down the street a little? Feed the cats some place where it won’t bother the neighbors?”
So that’s what she did. Furthermore, she carried out the scraps each morning before dawn, so the sight of her with the food in hand wouldn’t aggravate anyone.
A few weeks ago she got a call, this time from a friend who lives down the block – a ba’alas chessed, someone who had once gone out of her way to help Esther herself on an unrelated matter. “Look,” the woman began, “I appreciate what you’re trying to do. I know you’re feeding the cats, and I think it’s very admirable, really, but Esther, you’re killing me.”
Esther’s heart jumped to her throat.
“The cats aren’t scared anymore,” the woman continued, “because of you. And since we’re on the ground floor, we’re the ones who bear the brunt of it. They jump right up onto our porch. I have to keep the windows and doors shut all the time – in this heat! – because if not, they come right into the living room! I found one sitting on my couch today and that’s when I decided to ask you, Esther, please, please do something.”
Esther went back to Rabbi Scheinberg.
* * *
The next day, I asked her how he had responded.
Now, I’ve never mentioned it to my friend, but I myself have scant love for cats, and can therefore identify with the neighbors’ position. I had no doubt that under the circumstances, Rabbi Scheinberg would pasken that shalom comes first, and that in this case, she must forego kindness to animals in favor of kindness to her fellow Jews.
But I was interested, anyway, in hearing precisely how he had framed it.
Esther said: “Rabbi Scheinberg said that the pain of the neighbors is more important than the pain of the cats.”
“Oh, so that’s what I expected.”
“But then he said I should tell my neighbor that if she has rachmanus on Hashem’s creatures, then Hashem will have rachmanus on her.”
“So Esther, what are you going to do?”
“I’ll do what he says. But I have to admit, in a way I was almost disappointed, that this wasn’t the end of the story. I think I was sort of hoping to be let off the hook. It’s hard getting up so early sometimes, going out there when it’s still dark, trying to be quiet so nobody hears me. It makes me nervous. I hate sneaking and hiding. And I feel terrible, having my neighbors mad at me. I’m sorry to be upsetting them, they’re such nice people. And this woman, she’s my friend. But now I really don’t know how I can stop. Especially the kittens. When I don’t come, they’re just out there meowing all the time. I feel responsible for them. Who else is going to do it? You know, one time a while ago my husband and I were going away on vacation but I was worried about the cats. So I went to Rabbi Scheinberg. I thought he’d say something like I should have emunah that HaKadosh Baruch Hu would take care of the cats and not to worry. But instead he said have a good time on your vacation and get someone else to feed the cats.”
“No, and oh, there was something else yesterday. He said I should tell my neighbor she can have a chelek (share) of my mitzvah.”
I asked if it was all right with her if I asked Rabbi Scheinberg about it myself, and a few moments later, the Rosh Yeshiva’s phone was picked up.
On my end, I could just catch his far-off “Yes?” I could picture him there at his table, clad in his many layers of tzitzit, could see the Rebbetzin in her housecoat emerging from her kitchen, placing before him a plate of vegetables or fruit for his supper. I could see her telling him something, how he would nod ever so slightly in reply, and could see her returning to the kitchen to get him something else.
And for me, as always, understanding his quiet voice over the telephone would present a challenge.
I explained that I had heard about the problem which had arisen over feeding stray cats. “She told me what you said, Rabbi Scheinberg, and I’d just like to check that I understood correctly. Did you say that the pain of the neighbors is more important than the pain of the cats?
On the other end, ever so quietly: “It’s true.”
“But did you also say she should tell the neighbor that if she has rachamim on Hashem’s creatures, then Hashem will have rachamim on her?”
“And did you say she can have a chelek of the mitzvah?”
He said something about chelek of the mitzvah.
“Is it all right if I quote you on that? Because I don’t think people will believe it.”
He gave what sounded like a laugh. Then he said something else, in which I caught the words gemilas chesed.
“Pardon me? Could -”
There was rachamim again, and a long sentence that sounded as if it were coming from a thousand miles away. He was saying something about the time before Mashiach.
“Could the Rosh Yeshivah repeat that? I’m so sorry, I – ”
Laughter again. Rabbi Scheinberg was laughing? Then on a buoyant stream, among some other words, came mitzvah…Mashiach…rachamim…his voice reaching me like faint… starlight, from a different realm altogether.
* * *
When I came to him months later, with this story in hand, I asked if he would be so kind as to read it over. I wanted to try getting it published, and needed his permission.
“So read it to me,” he said.
“Read it to you? You mean, out loud?”
When I got to the third paragraph, he gave a laugh. (What was going on here?) He called for the Rebbetzin, “Listen to this!”
I got as far as the second page, and she said: “You tell them!” She wagged her finger at me. “My father used to feed the cats in Jerusalem every single day! They used to follow him around, dozens of them! You tell them!”
Rabbi Scheinberg said something. I asked if he could please repeat himself.
He looked to the side and pointed to a large framed photograph “My father-in-law, Rav Yakov Yosef Herman. Every day.” He chuckled and looked at the Rebbetzin. “There were a lot of them.”
This piece is excerpted from “A Gift Passed Along” and reprinted with the author’s permission.
Sarah Shapiro’s most recent books are “A Gift Passed Along,” and “The Mother in Our Lives” She writes for a number of publications in Israel and the United States, and teaches writing in Jerusalem, where she lives with her family.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.