Commanded

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Just in time for Rosh Hashanah, a number of media, including the Wall St. Journal and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, found a good “Jewish” story in the popularity and abundance of dogs in Tel Aviv.

Talk about pnei hador kipnei hakelev, the prediction in massechta Sotah (49b) that, with the approach of the Geulah, “the face of the generation will be the face of a dog.”

Tel Aviv, it was reported, is home to 413,000 people and 30,000 dogs, and, declaring itself the friendliest city in the world for dogs, it recently hosted a “dog festival” cutely called “Kelaviv.”

Our mesorah is undeniably sensitive to concern for animals.  Not only were Yaakov Avinu and  Moshe Rabbeinu  caring shepherds, but the Torah prohibits causing an animal unnecessary pain.

I recall as a young boy how my father, shlita, scooped a pair of injured birds from a street and brought them home to care for them.  In my own home (which over the years has hosted, among other animals, a goat, an iguana and a tarantula), even insects are captured and released rather than killed.

But like most ideals, concern for animals can be taken too far. The “animal rights” group PETA’s founder once declared that that “Six million Jews died in concentration camps, but six billion broiler chickens will die this year in slaughterhouses.”  More infamously, she coined the aphorism “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy,” reflecting a philosophy nothing short of perverse.

Torah-committed Jews – and all thoughtful human beings – maintain a clear and crucial distinction between the animal sphere and the human one.  Animals may be forced to work and may be killed for food.  But humans may not, because we are the pinnacle of creation, and are alone gifted with free will.

In my role as Agudath Israel of America’s media liaison, I regularly receive requests for public comment.  A number of years ago, a call came in from a major media outlet producing a national program.  Flattered, I asked what presumably weighty topic was to be explored.  I was thoroughly deflated to hear the response: “Rabbi, we’d like to get your take on the question of whether pets go to heaven.”

I politely declined the offer to comment but then changed my mind.  What I realized is that many of the most fundamental philosophical and moral issues of our time – indeed of any time – touch upon the special distinction of humanness.  The subject may be the beginning of life or its end; the meaning of family, or of decency.  If humans see themselves as mere mammals, they end up in a very different place than if they see themselves as baalei bechirah, creatures with a mission, and the ability to undertake their individual roles in its attainment.

So, as it happens, the Tel Aviv dog articles are not immaterial to Rosh Hashanah at all.  They can serve to make us think a bit, and remind us of why pets, and all animals, while they may well serve a higher purpose and achieve a tikkun in their service to us baalei bechirah, do not in fact possess the potential, as we do, to “go to heaven.”

The Berditchever conveys a pithy and pertinent thought on the wording of one of the Torah’s prohibitions of idol worship: bowing down before “the sun, moon or other heavenly bodies that I have not commanded” (Devarim 17:3).

We may not genuflect to the sun, but we may do so to a human being.  The navi Ovadiah, for instance, bowed before his master Eliyahu.  Explained the Berditchever: People, by virtue of our being commanded creations, intended to not just exist but to shoulder responsibility, are singular parts of creation.  Our being commanded exalts us, places us on a plane above everything else in the universe.

The sun and the moon – and animals – are not charged, or able, to choose. They are bounded by their natures and their instincts.

Not so, us.

We may, to be sure, lapse into “instinctive” living at times.  But we have the ability to transcend our failures.  And that’s why Rosh Hashanah, when we are judged for our choices, is described both as a Yom Hadin, a Day of Judgment, and as a festive holiday.  Even as we face our failures and stand kivnei maron, “like sheep,” before the Judge of all, we celebrate with our seudos Yom Tov.  Because we are not sheep.  We are commanded beings – a fact that should fill us with both awe and joy.

© 2016 Hamodia