D’var Torah By Richard Schwartz
Parshat Sh’mot (read Saturday, Dec. 29, 2018) begins the story of Moshe (Moses), the greatest Jewish leader, prophet, teacher, and inspiration. It is instructive and important to consider why he was deemed fit to lead the Jewish people. After all, when he was chosen, unlike other leaders, he was not a military hero or leader, a major legislator, or an eloquent speaker – actually he initially had difficulty speaking and he had to rely on his brother Aaron for help in communicating.
So why was he chosen? The following midrash, rabbinic commentary on the bible, provides some insight:
When our teacher Moses was tending the flock of Jethro in the wilderness, a
kid ran away from the flock. He ran after the kid until it reached Hasuah. There
the kid came across a body of water and began to drink. When Moses
reached him he said, “I did not know that you were running because you were
thirsty. You must now be tired.” He placed the kid on his shoulder and began
to walk. The Holy One, blessed be He, said, “You are compassionate in
tending to flocks belonging to mortals. I swear you will similarly shepherd my
flock Israel.” (Exodus Rabbah 2:2)
Thus, according to this midrash, the greatest of Jewish heroes was chosen because of his compassion to animals.
According to the same midrash, King David was also deemed worthy to lead the Jewish people because he, like Moses,tended sheep with devotion, bestowing care on each one. When he was shepherd as a youth, David first permitted the very young and very old sheep to graze on the tender grass before enabling the young, mature sheep to graze on the rougher grass.
Compassion to animals is not only a test for leadership in the Jewish tradition. It is also a test for righteousness. As Proverbs 12:10 indicates, “the righteous person considers the lives of his or her animals.”
It is also a test for choosing a spouse. Rivka (Rebecca) was judged suitable to be a wife for Isaac because of the kindness she showed to animals. Eliezer, the patriarch Abraham’s servant, asked Rebecca to draw water from a well for him. She not only did that but also eagerly drew water for the ten thirsty camels accompanying him who had just crossed a desert and thus were very thirsty. Rebecca’s concern for the camels was evidence of concern for all God’s creatures. It helped convince Eliezer that she would be a suitable wife for Isaac, thereby helping to have Judaism continue (Genesis 24: 11-20).
Because of the above and many Jewish teachings on the proper treatment of animals, Jews are to be rachmanim bnei rachmanim, compassionate descendants of Jewish ancestors, imitators of God, “Whose compassion is over all His works” (Psalms 145:9). It is important therefore that Jews be involved in efforts to reduce the many current abuses of animals.
Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, College of Staten Island, is the author of Judaism and Vegetarianism, Judaism and Global Survival, Mathematics and Global Survival, and Who Stole My Religion? Revitalizing Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal Our Imperiled Planet.