Parshat Chayei Sarah
I am an animal lover and have been a vegetarian for 35 years. Now, I’m not a vegetarian because I love animals. I’m a vegetarian because, as a Jew, Torah and our tradition guide the choices I make in my life. One of the values/mitzvot that has informed my decision to be a vegetarian can be found in this week’s Torah portion. In the Parsha, Abraham instructs his servant Eliezer to return to his ancestral home to find a bride for his son, Isaac.
Of course, Eliezer does as he is told and travels with a caravan of camels and gifts to Aram Naharayim. The burning question, however, was how would he know the right girl for Isaac? Eliezer had a plan. He would wait by the city well with the camels and ask a young woman for water. The one who would give him water AND water for the camels would be the one he would bring back for Isaac. In other words, the criteria to be selected as the wife of Isaac was compassion. Compassion not only for a stranger but for his animals as well. The Mitzvah of Tzar Ba’alei Chayim, literally “suffering of living beings,” is a fundamental value of Judaism. Rebekah showed compassion for the animals, which told Eliezer that she had the necessary character to be the wife of Isaac and the second matriarch of the Jewish people.
As I said, I am an animal lover, but seriously, have you ever smelled a camel? Have you ever ridden a camel? I've staffed enough Birthright trips over the years to have significant firsthand experience. Of course, the "horse designed by a committee" makes for adorable cartoon characters, but (and I don't mean to impugn an entire species) camels can be pretty mean, smelly, and ornery creatures. The handlers always said: "Don't get near their mouths… they BITE!" However, like Rebekah, we love and show compassion to them, as we should show compassion to every living being.
Switching gears just a bit, last week I went scuba diving with my friend Peter Bortel. We had three fantastic dives and incredible encounters with sharks. The water was crystal clear, with about 80 feet of visibility. At one point, ten Bull sharks ranging in size from six-eight feet surrounded us. They were big and powerful. They were sleek and graceful. They were beautiful and magnificent… and not for a single second did I feel threatened or in danger. Instead, these spectacular beings swam within inches of my face, gliding silently over my shoulder.
In the presence of those sharks, I experienced AWE.
Then I saw it. Almost every one of the sharks had large fishing hooks in their mouths. One had about seven feet of fishing line attached to lures trailing from its mouth, and another had a hook attached to a lead weight hanging below it. As I watched these magnificent creatures and felt so at ease in their presence, I couldn't help but think what a terrible disservice we have done to them. We have created a fear and loathing of sharks that is totally unfounded. Yes, there is no denying that 12-15 humans are killed yearly because of encounters with sharks, but dogs kill about 25,000 people a year and are "man's best friend." Hippopotamuses kill 500 people a year and make great cartoon characters too. Elephants kill a hundred people a year, and we don't demonize them. Lions also kill about a hundred people a year, and they're "the King of Beasts." And by the way, hippos, lions, and most elephants just live in Africa (yes, I know there are elephants in India too, but I'm trying to make a point). Sharks live in water across the entire planet. It's also worth noting that when sharks kill people, it's usually by accident. We are not their food.
However, the greater disservice humans have done to sharks is not the demonization of these magnificent animals. It's the fact that humans kill 70-80 million sharks every year in the cruelest and most barbaric way, so that people can eat shark fin soup. This is not a disservice. This is an injustice. This is wrong. In every possible way… it's wrong. Sharks have far more to fear from humans than we have to fear from them. As Jews, Tzar Ba'alei Chayim commands us not to cause pain or suffering to other living beings. Nor can we turn a blind eye to it. Over the past few weeks, we have asked our readers to sign the petition to protect sharks. While many might see this as a simple act of environmental activism, if we see it in the light of this week's Torah portion, signing a petition to help prevent millions of sharks from being cruelly slaughtered is not an act of environmental activism. It's a Mitzvah.