Caring for Your Pet
From time immemorial people have raised animals, but they didn’t always love them. Early animal domesticators put their animals to work. Wolves and later dogs were used as hunting tools. Cattle and fowl were either slaughtered for food or kept for wool, milk and eggs. Horses and Oxen were driven to heavy labor. Even today, when leisure and comfort pets are lovingly adopted into the family unit, they are often made to double as guard or Seeing Eye dogs.
One supposes that humans always appreciated their livestock and treated them well. In fact, several societies in the Far East prohibited hunting and animal slaughter even before the Common Era. But the majority of society didn’t begin to think this way until the seventeenth century. Ancient races had little inking of human rights, let alone animal rights. While there were notable exceptions, all too often, animals were to be possessed, worked to the bone and discarded. The Torah instructs us to feed our animals ahead of ourselves, but outside of Judaism there is little evidence of such noble treatment.
Kept animals can be grouped into three categories. Animals that are raised for slaughter, animals that are bred and possessed to benefit humans (be it work, sport or profit) and animals adopted out of love.
The interests of the first group are entirely ignored. They are intended as human feed and are hardly deemed worthy of the keeper’s concern. The second group is treated with care, not because they have interests or rights, but because tending to their needs increases their yield. The third group is treated with respect. These animals are seen as living beings that their owners can bond with and love.
Another way of putting it is that the first group is valued when it is consumed by humans. The second group is valued when it benefits humans. The third group is valued for being itself. It is enjoyed as is.
The Inner Beast
There is an animal in each of us. Our base nature is primal and responds to our own interests and needs. We are self absorbed and are rarely sensitive to others. Our task is to refine our selfish natures and rise above ourselves. This task can be accomplished in three ways.
The first is to transform the body into a platform for the soul. The soul prefers to pray, meditate and study, the soul is inclined toward charity, chastity and kindness, but it needs a mind through which to think, a heart through which to feel, a mouth through which to speak and hands through which to act. The soul doesn’t have a single selfish inclination, but is forced to contend with a body that doesn’t have a single selfless inclination. It is the soul’s wish to sublimate the body and remake it in its own image. If it is successful in this task, the inner animal would be entirely refashioned into a sacred servant of G-d.
The second is to recruit our body to become an instrument of the soul. In this case the animal is not transformed, but subdued. We maintain the same desires and inclinations as before, but we are recruited to set those desires aside and work to benefit the soul. We want to use our minds to devise ways to amuse ourselves and our hearts for our own passions, but instead we rein in these cravings and place our skills in the soul’s employ.
Each method has an advantage. In the first method our base natures are entirely sublimated. We are truly transformed into wholly sacred and even G-dly beings. The drawback is that we cannot serve G-d as we are. Our inner animal isn’t welcome in the soul’s employ unless it stops behaving like an animal and learns to emulate the soul. In the second method the animal itself can be recruited to serve G-d. Our base nature as she is becomes an instrument of the soul and brings glory to G-d.
Still even this method leaves something to be desired because our base nature can only serve G-d when we shut down our natural impulses and force ourselves to behave in ways that we don’t naturally enjoy.
This is where the third method comes in. In this method we learn that our animalistic urges can serve G-d as they are. We derive pleasure from eating and G-d can be served through eating. When mealtime becomes an opportunity to observe the dietary laws, feed the poor, engage in discussion about Judaism, the meaning of life and moral values, the experience satisfies not only the animal, but also the soul. The same is true of every human endeavor that is consistent with Jewish law. So long as it is permissible it can be used to serve G-d even as it indulges our inner animal.
On the surface this method might appear less pious and holy than the second and certainly the first method, but it is no less important and perhaps much more difficult. The challenge of keeping our minds on G-d as we are surrounded by the allure of material pleasure is constant and overwhelming. But in accordance with the challenge, so is the reward. The reward of this method is that it enables our inner animal to serve G-d precisely as it is with no need to change whatsoever.
These three methods are in line with the three groupings of domesticated animals. The first group is of no concern to the keeper, its only purpose is to be consumed by the human, so too in the first method is the inner animal is of no import unless it is entirely sublimated by the soul. The second group is important to the keeper, but only insofar as it serves the human so too in the second method is the inner animal tolerated, but only to serve the soul. The third group is loved for being themselves and so too in the third method is the inner animal taught to serve G-d, as it is.
The early Jews served G-d in the first method. From the time they saw G-d at Sinai a great number of Jews were devoted to seclusion, meditation and prophecy. A prophet detaches the mind from all material entanglement to concentrates on soulfulness and G-d. The prophet is an ascetic, who eschews material pleasure and hedonism. The prophet’s sole joy is derived from meditation, inspiration and prophetic revelation. The inner animal is entirely sublimated and becomes a platform for the soul.
When the era of prophecy ended the era of the rabbinate began. The sages didn’t commonly engage in transcendental prophecy, but employed their minds and hearts in the study of Torah. They disciplined themselves to study for hours on end and brought their considerable mental energies to bear on the task of mastering the tradition. They didn’t transform their base nature as much as subdue it.
The prophets showed that the inner animal can become soul like. The sages showed that it can serve the soul. Our task is to demonstrate that human nature can love and bond with G-d as is. We don’t have the power of self transformation, but we have the opportunity to demonstrate how holy the base and material can be. Our task is to demonstrate how lovable our inner animal can be. Ours is the era of showing the world that everything created by G-d was designed to serve G-d.
Is this perhaps why our generation is so animal friendly? I don’t know. What do you think?