Rabbi Hackenbrock, Hazan Robbins, Family and Friends - Shabbat Shalom, and thank you all for coming to celebrate this special day with me.
At my first lesson, I learnt that the word 'Bat' means daughter and the word 'Mitzvah' means commandment. So, now that I have reached the age of 12, I am responsible for keeping G-d’s commandments or rules. Before my twelfth birthday how I behaved was my parents’ responsibility but now that I am considered an adult who is responsible for her own actions, I am obliged to fulfil G-d’s Mitzvot. This means that it is my responsibility to learn about these commandments so that I know what is expected of me.
I have begun by studying the Torah portion for the week of my birthday, Parshat Shmini. The Parsha is devoted in part to the Laws of Kashrut. We are told in detail about which animals we may eat and which animals are forbidden to us. I have studied these laws with my teacher and we have paid particular attention to the laws of Shechita – how we slaughter animals. I have learned that this has to be carried out in the kindest possible way that causes the animal the least pain and trauma. Elsewhere the Torah provides very clear instructions on how this is achieved: what instruments should be used and how the animal should be slaughtered. From this my teacher and I have discussed what the relationship is between Jewish people and animals and how we are supposed to treat them. It is clear from the laws of Shechita that G-d wants us to show compassion to all of His creatures and I want to share with you today a few ideas about how we should treat animals and what this teaches us about the kind of people we should aspire to be.
The Torah establishes a fundamental connection between human beings and animals. We are told in Bereshit that birds and sea creatures were created on the 5th day and land animals, together with Adam and Eve, were created on the 6th day. One of Adam’s first duties was to name the animals and Adam and Eve were instructed by G-d to “Fill the Earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky and all the living things that creep on the Earth.” We learn from this that human beings are placed in a position of dominance or control. However, this position is not to be abused. We are supposed to rule over animals and use them in the way that G-d intended. Our use has to be in a G-d like way: by showing compassion, kindness and care to the animals.
We are told in Devarim “You shall not plough with an ox and a donkey together”. One of the reasons for this is that the ox is much stronger and the way that it would pull the plough would cause pain to the donkey. As you can see from this prohibition, we always have to take into consideration the physical welfare of animals.
However there is a Mitzvah in the Torah, which seems quite strange at first, which actually encourages us to be concerned about the emotional well-being of animals too. This is the Mitzvah of sending away the mother bird. This Mitzvah is also found in Devarim and it says that if we find a nest and there is a mother bird sitting over the eggs we must first send away the mother before we take the eggs for ourselves. What is the reason for this Mitzvah? We know that G-d shows mercy to His creations and, in the same way, we must do so too. Animals instinctively love their young and therefore will suffer when they see them taken away. So the Torah tells us that although we are permitted to take the eggs for our own use we have to do so in a way which we believe will cause the least possible suffering to the mother bird.
From this, we can see that the Torah really does instruct us to care about both the physical and the emotional well-being of animals. This concern for animal welfare was unusual - most civilised nations did not accept this idea until 100's of years later.
Having looked at the first question of HOW we should treat animals, I turn to the second question. WHAT does this teach us about the kind of people we should aspire to be?
In the Torah, we see how many of the key figures in our history cared for animals. This teaches us important values for our lives today.
We are told that when Noah was on the Ark he did not sleep for 12 months as he was so busy tending to the animals. There were of course a huge number and range of animals on board the Ark: 2 of every non-kosher species and 7 pairs of every kosher animal. Each animal had to be fed at different times and they had to be fed before Noah even fed himself. In fact, Jewish law requires that we must feed our pets before ourselves and this teaches us compassion and caring for others.
Moses and King David both started out as Shepherds. The way that they treated their flocks showed us and G-d what sort of people they were and why they may have been chosen for the roles they subsequently fulfilled.
Moses once discovered that one of his sheep had run away. He found it drinking from a stream of water. The story concludes with Moses carrying the sheep home on his shoulders as he felt that the sheep must have been tired after running away so far.
Likewise David is also shown to be a good Shepherd. He would restrain the larger sheep so that the small ones could graze on the grass first. Not only this, but he would even make sure that each sheep had the type of grass that they preferred to eat, so he would save the patches of soft grass for the younger sheep and the tougher grass for the older sheep.
It was Moses’ behavior towards his sheep that demonstrated his suitability for becoming the leader of the Jewish People. G-d tells Moses “You have shown compassion in tending the flock. Therefore you shall tend my flock”, meaning the children of Israel. So too with David, as a result of the kindness that he showed towards his sheep he was considered suitable to become King of Israel. Rivka was chosen as a suitable wife for Avraham due to her kindness to animals. When Avraham’s servant asked for water for himself, Rivka volunteered to give water to his camels as well, which showed her natural sweetness, and proved that she would be a worthy wife. Interestingly, the two men identified in the Torah as hunters – Esav and Nimrod (a great grandson of Noah) – were both regarded as evil.
Judaism has for centuries recognized the link between the way a person treats animals and the way a person treats his fellow human beings. A person who is cruel to a defenceless animal will undoubtedly be cruel to vulnerable people too. Whereas a person who is kind and caring to the lowliest of creatures will certainly care for his fellow man. Modern studies in psychology have confirmed this idea: finding a link between being cruel to animals as a child and being a violent and dangerous adult.
G-d created all animals and He told us to take care of this world and all that it contains.
The Midrash says that Hashem showed Adam around the Garden of Eden and said, “Look at my works! See how beautiful they are — how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.”
Acting righteously involves not only treating humans and animals with respect but also the world – and it is only if humans do this that they will merit the dominion of creation which Hashem gave to Adam.
The way in which our leaders treated animals is inspiring and should be an example to us. They teach us attributes such as loyalty, compassion and kindness; these attributes are also reflections of G-d’s attributes. G-d, our Father, treats us with all of these positive traits and many more besides. However if we do not display these positive attributes in our own lives then how can we truly say that we deserve for G-d to behave towards us in such a way either? Does an uncompassionate person deserve to be treated compassionately by G-d?
As I become Bat Mitzvah I am starting to really think about the kind of person that I want to be especially in terms of my connection with G-d. I am starting out on a lifelong process of learning and growing. I am starting to see how the Torah defines my relationship with G-d, with others and with ourselves. Now, as I continue on this journey, I hope to be like the leaders of our people from the times of Tanach and show compassion and kindness to those around me.
I hope that by following the lessons we have learnt about how to care for animals and ultimately each other, I will grow into a leader in my own right bringing joy to my family, community and G-d.
Thank you all for listening. Shabbat Shalom