One of the primary ways to manifest “menschiness” is to understand, absorb, and fully manifest the mitzvah of Kavod Ha’Briyot, or the commandment to show respect and kindness to all creations. This fundamental soul trait is primary to the value of unity without uniformity, and its principles can be taught to the youngest of children. And one of the best ways to teach it is with a family pet! Whether that pet is a dog or cat, a turtle or a goldfish, animals have one very important trait in common: they do not understand time and have a difficult time dealing with delayed gratification.
Now I recognize that some of you might assert, “No Adrienne, that would be my kids. My partner. My blah blah blah.” But know that while human beings may not excel at this, the Torah doesn’t give us impossible tasks and commandments. This is why Judasim teaches us to always feed our animals before we feed ourselves in the morning. Because they simply cannot wait. They cannot be told, “Listen Rover, after Mommy has her coffee, I will get your breakfast. So be patient. Sit quietly. It won’t be more than half an hour!”
While your pet fish or cat’s dignity and limitations must be addressed before your own stomach, this mitzvah is also meant to teach us that if the animal’s dignity is important to be mindful of, we must be even more mindful of our fellow human beings’ dignity! Being respectful and showing kindness to all creations is not an impossible task.
The First Chief Rabbi of Israel, the great Rav Kook, teaches that love happens in concentric circles. The first and innermost circle is your love and respect for yourself. The relationship you have with your own worth and dignity. The appropriate self-love that is necessary to go beyond oneself and into the rest of the world.
After that circle is your family. That includes even those members with whom you don’t fit so well. The difficult sister-in-law. The problematic parent. The brother who provokes you. The nasty aunt or uncle. This does not include the truly evil who are rarely who you think they are! Instead, think of the people in your life who might be a match for you if you needed a kidney donation, God forbid. Think of the people who provide you with your first exposure to love.
After that is your broader family, the entire Jewish community including the land of Israel and its people. These are your extended family, and they are quite literally connected to your soul. The Torah teaches us that there were 600,000 core souls that left Egypt and stood at Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. Part of your soul was there. We Jews are all deeply interconnected at a soul level.
Beyond that is all of the people in the world of every race, every creed, and every religion. Every other human being. We were created in the image of God (B’Tzelem Elokim), and we all contain a spark of the divine. There is no us versus them. There is only us.
Beyond that circle are all of the animals and every single creeping, crawling thing on planet Earth. Rav Kook enjoins us to have a solid relationship with yourself, the center circle, because it is your relationship that will inform your relationship with the other concentric circles.
I have noticed that there is often a disconnect for people in this area. I know someone who has devoted her life to the care of endangered species. All of her charitable dollars, her time, and her love are devoted to this cause. A noble endeavor to be sure, but she does not seem to notice that her brother-in-law has been out of work for a year and cannot make his mortgage payments. That her sister is suffering and struggling to put bread on the table. This is an issue. Because as much as we care about the world, when we fail to see what is right in front of us, we are navigating those circles incorrectly!
When your child is very small, it can be a great gift to them to buy them a small fish and leave it by their bed. Teach them that Jewish law says that they must feed that fish before they eat their breakfast. Tiny hands can do that well, even before the age of three. Praise them when they remember to do so and remind them when they don’t. You might say something like, “That fish doesn’t understand waiting for a few moments. It causes fish discomfort to wait to be fed. By tending to the neediest first, you will grow your kindness and show your respect for all creatures.”
Got a child who likes to squish bugs? Don’t worry, you are not raising a serial killer… This is a normal phase of development for lots of children. Teach them this principle: God asks us to treat all of His creatures with respect and care.
Children will always point out differences in appearance, ability, and race, or color. Try responding to them like this, “God makes all human beings in His image. The outside of a person will always look different, whether it’s their face, their smile, their body, or their skin color. The part of a person that makes them human is the soul inside of them. And just like God makes different colored or shaped fruits and flowers for us to enjoy, He also makes people that way, too! There is no better flower or fruit or look of a person. Because once we get to know their soul, we won’t notice our differences anymore, only what we have in common. But lucky for us, we get to enjoy God’s special varieties in people, too!” This is what it means to focus on what unites us rather than what divides us.
This respect for all creatures is foundational and a vital part of creating a peaceful society. Teach yourself and your children by modelling a wider variety of relationships and friendships. Open up your tent and welcome the stranger and those who look, act, and think differently than you do. Because when we achieve this, everyone benefits. We love ourselves more. We give the gift of decency to our families; we bring honor to God, and even that pesky fly in your house will benefit. Just open a window. Don’t take out a flyswatter!