On a shivery Shabbat night in Israel, I was shocked to see callousness towards animal cruelty. My friends are I were spending the weekend away from seminary in Ashkelon. After Friday night dinner, we, like all the other youths in the city, sprang to the streets to socialize. A rowdy group of boys were causing a very suspicious scene, laughing and drinking triumphantly. Being the busybodies we were, we soon discovered the boys had just murdered a cat. In their drunken stupor, they managed to capture one of Israel’s many homeless cats, stuff it in a bag and throw it off a ten-story building. That night, I understood the Torah’s necessity to address laws concerning animals and its praise of the many biblical characters who exemplified care and compassion towards animals.
When, without permission, I brought home a dog from my local animal shelter, my father, a rabbi, was furious. “Animals are impure,” my father initially implored. Eventually, my father let me keep Mr. Maxwell Paxton. After all, the meaning of dog in Hebrew (כלב, kelev), “like a heart,” is not for naught; they truly tug on heartstrings. My father’s only condition for having this pet was that I must observe the Torah laws concerning animals. Mainly, that meant I had to feed the dog before myself. This is based on the order of eating in the verse in Deuteronomy 11:15: “I will give grass in your field for your livestock, and you will eat and be sated.” Additional laws include allowing animals to rest on Shabbat (Exodus 20:10), relieving the burden of an animal (Exodus 23:5, Deuteronomy 22:4), and not castrating the males of any species (Leviticus 22:24). Indeed, I heeded my father’s wishes and fed my dog before myself for every meal.
The Torah does not only cite laws for the treatment of animals, it goes as far as to praise many people including Rebecca and Moses, who showed care and compassion to animals. Rebecca was chosen and deemed worthy of a wife for Isaac because she not only offered water to Abraham’s servant but also to his camels (Genesis 24). Before becoming leader, Moses was a simple shepherd tending to flocks of sheep. The Midrash (Exodus Rabbah 2:2) writes of God telling Moses, “you are compassionate in leading flocks belonging to mortals; I swear you will similarly shepherd my flock, Israel.” In essence, Moses was worthy of being leader because of his sensitivity to animals.
Looking back on that Shabbat night and witnessing the cruelty to a cat, I understood that animal care and compassion is not a given. The Torah describes in length the laws of animal treatment. The worthiness of many famous biblical characters is tied to their care and compassion to animals. In a world where morals can easily be lost, caring for and being compassionate towards animals is a behavior that is litigated and lauded. In my own way, I feel connected to Judaism through caring for my dog. I shower him with love and kindness, and while I was not present for his pupshernish, I will definitely throw him a bark mitzvah. And on many Shabbatot, I dress my dog in his Shabbat best, a black tuxedo, and say a l’chaim to my furry friend.