When I lived in our Oklahoma monastery, I had the privilege of taking care of one of the community’s dogs. He had wandered in one day as a small, scared, and probably abused puppy. Soon he was adopted by the sisters. As a member of the community, he thrived and grew, and grew, and grew some more. He was very large, part black Lab and part something else, maybe German shepherd or maybe collie. With a heart as big as he was, he loved everybody (except squirrels and cats) and everybody loved him. Humans can learn true love from a dog: unconditional, uncomplaining love, love that does not harbor anger or strike out in rage, love that makes no judgments.
The Bible teaches kindness to animals. A commandment found in Deut. 22:6-7 reflects God’s mercy and compassion toward animals:
If, while walking along, you come across a bird’s nest with young birds or eggs in it, in any tree or on the ground, and the mother bird is sitting on them, you shall not take away the mother bird along with her brood. You must let the mother go, taking only her brood, in order that you shall prosper and have a long life.
Here the Bible seems concerned for the feelings of the mother bird. Concern for the mother is also found in Lev. 22:27-28:
When an ox or a lamb or a goat is born, it shall remain with its mother for seven days; only from the eighth day onward will it be acceptable, to be offered as an oblation to the Lord. You shall not slaughter an ox or a sheep on one and the same day with its young.
The Sages connected these laws, finding in them an expression of God’s mercy and compassion. We read in the midrash (Deut. Rabbah 6:1):
Just as the Holy One, blessed be He, has mercy on human beings, so does He have mercy on animals; as it is written, ‘A bullock, a lamb, or a kid goat, when it is born, it shall be seven days under its mother, but from the eighth day and thenceforth it may be accepted as an offering to God.’ Not only this, but the Holy One, blessed be He, declared, ‘(A mother cow) and her young you shall not slaughter on the same day (Leviticus 22:28).’ And just as the Holy One, blessed be He, has mercy upon beasts, so does He have mercy upon birds, as it is written, ‘When you encounter a bird’s nest…’”
Some commentators associated these laws are with another command in Deut. 14:21: “You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.” For the medieval commentator Ibn Ezra, to kill a mother and its offspring at the same time shows an indefensible lack of compassion. For Obadiah Sforno, a Jewish commentator living in Italy during the Renaissance, to cook an animal in its mother’s milk was inhumane. This commandment is the basis for the prohibition in the Jewish dietary laws of eating milk and dairy together. To do so is thought to engender cruelty.
We generally acknowledge that a person who abuses animals will often abuse children. Conversely, kindness to animals should lead a person to extend that kindness toward others. In Jewish tradition, the phrase “you shall surely send away” found in Deut. 22:6, concerning the mother bird, is linked to yet another biblical verse, Deut. 15:12, which mandates the release (“sending forth”) of a Hebrew slave after seven years. The midrash states: “one who fulfills the ‘sending forth’ of this precept will be granted the privilege of ‘sending forth’ a slave to freedom. As it is written (Deut. 15:12), ‘And when you send him forth free…’”
Let us then be aware of how we act to all God’s creatures, and give your dog or cat a special treat, an ear scratch, or a belly rub today.
Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the new American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission from the copyright owner.