One of the most morally formative memories from my early childhood is watching my father carefully follow a stray fly in our house with a cup, taking great care so as not to hurt our winged visitor. After catching the fly, he would gently slide a piece a paper underneath the cup and proceed outside to release the fly back to its home. The principle of compassion for all living creatures was thus deeply engrained into my psyche from a tender age.
Our connection and responsibility to our fellow animals is a profoundly Jewish concept, finding its origins as far back as the Torah and later developing through rabbinic texts and modern groups and organizations. The Biblical account of Genesis describes the creation of animals preceding that of human beings and portrays the original and ideal universal diet as a solely plant-based one (e.g. Gen. 1:29). The concession to a carnivorous diet was only a post-flood development, when G-d saw humanity could not live up to the Divine’s original ideal of vegetarianism and sought to quench and contain some of humanity’s more animalistic urges.
Animals are even the prime focus of one of our festivals. The Mishna designates four distinct annual new years, including, fittingly, a New Year for domesticated animals, which takes place at the beginning of the current new month of Elul. While the original practice around the new year for the domesticated animals was a Temple-based ritual of selecting which domestic animals were ready to be tithed, today’s celebration of this lesser-known festival has broader implications and offers us new ethical and spiritual opportunities to connect with other animals and affirm our connection to the whole of creation.