“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.”
I held her in my arms and paced the small cubicle at the vet’s office. Cuddles, my 15-year-old tuxedo cat, had been diagnosed with lymphoma four months before. The time had come to let her go. Soon enough the vet returned to the room and it was done. This was not the first time I’ve said goodbye to a beloved cat, but it doesn’t get easier.
Cuddles fit right in with our Jewish home. She knew when it was time for Shabbat dinner. On Every Friday night, as soon as she heard the first words of Shalom Aleichem, she came running from all corners of the house. Shabbat dinner meant treats—chicken or fish and sometimes catnip.
Jewish law understands the connection we have with our animal companions and is very strict about how we are to treat them. We’re forbidden to cause them to suffer, and if we see an animal that is suffering, we are obligated to help it. While we’re permitted to use animals for labor, we’re not allowed to overwork them. They also get Shabbat off, and we’re not permitted to eat until our animals have been fed.
Two animals feature prominently in the Torah. There’s that nasty snake in Genesis, of course, who helps to get Adam and Eve evicted from the Garden of Eden. My favorite is the talking donkey in Parshat Balaak in the Book of Numbers. A non-Israelite prophet by the name of Balaam is riding his faithful donkey on his way to curse the Israelites when his path is blocked by an angel. The donkey sees the angel but Balaam does not, so he beats the animal when it stops in its tracks. The donkey speaks up for himself with an indignant cry, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?” Balaam responds, “You have made a mockery of me! If I had a sword with me, I’d kill you.” “Look, I am the ass that you have been riding all along until this day!” retorts the donkey. “Have I been in the habit of doing thus to you?” God opens Balaam’s eyes and he, too, sees the angel. Balaam is bested by a donkey, a very humbling experience.
After losing Cuddles I searched through Rabbi Naomi Levy’s book “Talking to God: Personal Prayers for Times of Joy, Sadness, Struggle, and Celebration.” I found “Prayer When a Beloved Pet Dies”: “You were my good friend. We never had a single conversation, but we understood each other. I still keep thinking you’ll be there waiting for me when I open the door. The house is empty without you. I miss you more than others could ever understand. I thank you for being my companion in times of joy, and my comfort in times of pain. I was fortunate to have you in my life and I know your life with me was a happy one. I will remember you with joy and a smile. May God bless you. Amen.”
On a recent trip to Seattle, my husband and I were intrigued by how many people we saw walking their well-kept and obviously loved dogs. While on a bus there I noticed from the corner of my eye that the woman next to me was cuddling a tiny animal under her coat. Expecting to see a kitten, I looked over. I was surprised to see a parrot. The woman was shabbily dressed, most likely not well off. I felt very moved by the obviously strong connection between these two and hoped the parrot was bringing love into this woman’s life.
A couple of weeks ago we adopted Murray, a tan, year-old cat who likes to have his belly rubbed, from the Metrowest Humane Society in Ashland, where I volunteer. He was found in a ditch in very bad shape and was rescued by the shelter. Murray, now quite healthy, gets treats on Friday night, and we hope he will one day make the Shalom Aleichem connection. Yes, I’m a crazy cat lady, also fond of dogs and other four-legged friends. And my pet passion fits nicely with my Jewish heritage.
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