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Mishpatim 2023

Rabbi Robin Nafshi

You remember March of 2020 don’t you? A virus had arrived in this country in January from the other side of the world. It was a Monday, I believe, when the governor, like virtually all other governors, shut down the state.

The next day, Tuesday, we were all home when there was a ring at the front doorbell. “That must be them,” Shira announced opening the door. Our member, Peter Josephson, his wife Becky, and a little black Cocker Spaniel walked into our house. The dog was adorable and sweet, giving Liba many licks. Peter and Becky carried a bowl, several tennis balls, and a bag of dog food. The dog belonged to Peter’s mother, who could no longer care for him. Peter and Becky considered keeping him, but they liked being a one-dog family. We, on the other hand, are suckers for a cute canine – and sometimes feline – face. Robie has been with us now nearly three years. He’ll be twelve on his next birthday. He joined our now eleven year old Basset Hound and a cat. And in case you are wondering, the Basset, the then cat and the current cat, like Robie, are all rescues.

When we first moved to New Hampshire, we came with two Welsh Corgis. Our younger one, Latke, was a rescue, too. We found him on Petfinder.com, a website I used to call “doggie date.com.”

I tell you the story of our rescued animals for a couple of reasons. First, I’m a strong advocate of rescuing animals in need. Right now, Petfinder has over 315,000 animals looking for homes in its database. We are a nation that regularly throws away its animals. 

The second reason I tell this story is that it has a connection to this week’s Torah portion. Our parashah, Mishpatim, means “laws,” and it contains a myriad of commandments given to the Israelites by God. One of those commandments is “do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.”

Today, we understand that this verse prohibits those of us who choose to observe the laws of kashrut from eating meat and dairy together. But that is not been how this verse always has been interpreted. In fact, the prohibition against boiling a kid in its mother’s milk is thought to be a part of the larger body of Jewish law known as tsa’ar ba’alei chayim – avoiding cruelty to animals.

Obviously, boiling a kid could be understood as cruel. But this is not the cruelty with which the Rabbis were concerned. Instead, they taught that the cruelty would be toward the mother animal, who birthed the kid, and then watched it die as it was boiled in her own milk, the milk that sustained the kid when it was first born. The Rabbis liken this commandment to another one in Torah – that requires shooing away a mother bird before taking her eggs. Again, the Rabbis feared the pain, the broken heart, that the mother bird would feel in watching her young taken away.

About these laws, Maimonides wrote: 

People should be restrained ... from [slaying] the young ... in the sight of the mother; for the pain of animals under such circumstances is very great. There is no difference in this case between the pain of people and the pain of other living beings, since the love and the tenderness of the mother for her young ones is not produced by reasoning but by feeling, and this faculty exists not only in people but in most living things.

The Rabbis and Torah scholars are not advocating vegetarianism. They understood that we gave that up when Cain killed Abel. According to Rabbinic tradition, we were vegetarian in the Garden of Eden, but after the first murder, God gave us the animals to eat with the hope that it would satisfy our thirst for killing. It is said that when we enter the Messianic Era, we will return to a vegetarian state.

Thus, Jewish law, tradition, and custom are clear that we can eat the kid or the bird – and that we do not violate the laws against tsa’ar ba’alei chayim when we do so. But at the same time, Judaism places great emphasis on how we treat animals. Remember that Abraham’s servant Eliezar selects Rebecca to be Isaac’s wife not simply because she was kind to him, but mostly because she offered to give water to all of his camels.

The Talmud contains two basic laws directed at those of us pet owners who have animals in our care: First, we must feed our animals before eating our own meals. This law is meant to assure that our animals are not neglected. Second, we are prohibited from keeping animals if we can not properly care for them – if we lack the time, the resources, or the interest, we must find a more appropriate home.

And regarding animals that work for us or are not in our care, the Talmud teaches that we have an obligation to relieve them of pain, hunger, thirst, or suffering of any kind. This is why owners of Kosher dairy farms usually hire non-Jewish workers to milk their cows on Shabbat.

And all animals – pets or working animals – are entitled to a day off. Just as we were given Shabbat as a day of rest, so too, must we rest our animals on Shabbat. This does not apply to Frisbee games with your dog in the park.

While these laws generally have not been interpreted to require that we be vegetarian, a number of prominant rabbis have understood them to mean just that. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Pre-state Israel, was a vegetarian. He was also a great Torah scholar, a mystical thinker, and a forceful writer. Among his many significant writings is “A Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace,” in which he reasons that God wants us to refrain from eating animals for the sake of peace.

Rabbi David Rosen, who was Chief Rabbi of Ireland in the 1980s, was also a vegetarian. He wrote that “the more sensitive and respectful we are toward’s God’s Creation, … the more respectful and reverential we actually are towards God.” And, Rabbi Sha’ar Yashuv Cohen, who served as the Chief Rabbi of the City of Haifa for 25 years, is a vegetarian.

Although some scholars teach that Torah’s prohibition against boiling a kid in its mother’s milk means we should be vegetarians for the sake of how we treat animals, most Torah commentators read the verse much differently.

The most common interpretation of “do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” is stated in Sefer Hachinuch, a 13th century Spanish commenatary on Torah’s 613 mitzvot. There we read: “When a man becomes accustomed to have pity even upon animals, ... his soul will likewise grow accustomed to be kind to human beings...”

In other words, we are taught to act toward animals with hesed – mercy – and with rachamim– compassion – because such behavior will lead us to treat human beings with hesed and rachamim. In the Talmud, this line of thinking is known as “kal v’chomer.” If the Torah revealed somthing in regard to a subject which is kal – of a lighter nature (in this case animals) – then that something should certainly apply to a subject which is chomer – of a heavier nature (human beings).

Certainly, many families unknowingly use animals in this way. How many newly married couples “practice” parenthood on a puppy or kitten? And how many parents hope to teach their children about resposibility by getting them a new pet.

But Torah is not simply talking about practicing parenthood or learning responsibility. I pray that the day will arrive when humanity achieves the lofty goal of the Rabbis – when we treat each of our fellow human beings with love and justice and compassion – when we see them as children of God created in God’s image. I believe that this is what God wants of us, and if we learn it by “practicing” on animals, so much the better for them.

In truth, however, I suspect that we learn compassion and mercy not so much by the way we treat animals, but by the way they treat us. Animals give us unconditional love. Many are neglected – or worse – but they come back to us ready to offer a lick or to sit in our lap. Their demands are minimal, yet we often describe them as needy or in the way.

For most Reform Jews, the laws of Kashrut, such as separating meat and dairy, make little sense in our world today. So when we read the prohibition against boiling a kid in its mother’s milk, let’s consider an earlier meaning: kindness to animals, either for its own sake or because it will teach us treat each other with a mercy and compassion.

Shabbat shalom.

Thu, February 29 2024 20 Adar I 5784