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Animals First?

Friday, 7 August, 2020 - 7:41 am


A friend commented to me that we ought to get a dog. Dogs eat lots of leftovers and are great companions. “Especially during this pandemic, they help keep you busy,” I was told.

I appreciate the suggestion, but with 10 children (בלי עין הרע), who were all home for several months due to the pandemic, I don’t think we are suffering from boredom! Thank G-d we have our hands pretty full with our wonderful family.

The comment, however, that got me thinking the most was that dogs clean your floor and consume your leftovers. Is that the way it ought to be?

A friend of mine sells pet supplies. He told me that during the initial covid-19 shutdown, Amazon was limiting shipments in order to prioritize essentials. Anything regarded nonessential was delayed. Pet food and supplies were still shipping regularly – because they are indeed priorities.

In fact, the importance – and manner – of feeding our pets is learned from a verse in this week’s parsha, Eikev. The Torah states, “I will give grass in your fields for your livestock, that you may eat and be full.” According to the Talmud, this teaches that a person is forbidden to eat before he feeds his animals, for it is written, “I will give grass in your fields for your livestock,” and only after that, “that you may eat and be full.”

I don’t have a dog, so I can’t quite implement this lesson in its most literal sense. However, like every lesson in Torah, it has layers of interpretation – which are indeed relevant.

Whether you have a pet or not, you do have an animal. An animal soul.

According to the Mystics, every Jew possesses – not one soul, but – two souls. One is an animal soul, driving my animalistic and selfish instincts. The other is a veritable piece of G-d, a Divine soul.

Selfish, natural and base impulses stem from the animal soul. Selfless, sacred impulses are driven by the Divine soul. They are constantly at war with each other, fighting for dominance of my psyche.

So, which one should I feed first? Who should get my primary attention?

The above-mentioned Talmudic passage suggests that the animal comes first. But, that sounds counter-intuitive to any spiritual seeker. Am I really meant to focus on physical indulgence and material pursuits?

Chassidic teachings insist that the animal soul is indeed the real focus of our mission on earth. After all, if G-d’s primary desire is heavenly souls, He would have sufficed with Heaven. However, He created earth – a very materialistic existence. The ultimate object of creation, then, is actually the animal soul.

In other words, Hashem desires that I train my animal soul and my body to make this world a holier place. Just as the energy of an animal can be harnessed for good, so too, my animal soul can be an asset in serving G-d. All of my worldly affairs can be used for a holy, productive purpose.

This is one of the secrets of Judaism’s infatuation with mitzvos. It is primarily action (as opposed to belief, thought and emotion) that transforms my animal soul, my body and the world around me.

But, how can I uplift my animal if it is naturally attracted to earthliness?

G-d has instilled within me a guiding light. My G-dly soul may not be the true purpose of creation. But it is the ultimate tool to accomplish this purpose. Without it, my animal wanders aimlessly, or worse. It is the Divine soul that infuses the animal soul with holiness and direction.

If you want to feed your pet before you feed yourself, you will first need to find “you.” Without “you” there is no one to feed the animal.

In order to feed my animal soul the real spiritual food it requires, I need to make sure my G-dly soul is alive and well. 

That’s why the Torah first tells us – even before discussing feeding our animals – to love G-d with all our heart and might. Only then am I truly capable of feeding my animal.

Don’t just feed your pet leftovers. Be intentional and feed them the good stuff.

But, before feeding your ‘own’ pet, make sure you have your own priorities straight.

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