It was a sight to behold and a wedding procession to remember. As they walked toward the chupah (wedding canopy), the bride and her mother held a tiny old colorful umbrella together over their heads, despite the balmy Jerusalem day.
When subsequently asked about the umbrella, this is the story they told.
It was a frigid winter day in Brooklyn, made worse by a heavy downpour. A young girl holding a tiny colorful umbrella stood patiently in front of "770," Lubavitch World Headquarters, waiting to catch a glimpse of the Rebbe as he arrived for prayers.
The Rebbe's car pulled up and the Rebbe quickly alighted. He didn't have an umbrella with him and was about to hurry to the door when he noticed the little girl waiting expectantly to greet him.The Rebbe bent beneath the miniature umbrella she proudly held out He smiled at her warmly and started towards the synagogue when she offered to share her umbrella with him. The Rebbe bent beneath the miniature umbrella she proudly held out and walked bent over until reaching 770, thoroughly soaked. After holding the door open for her, the Rebbe smiled broadly and said, "Thank you for sharing."
It was underneath this umbrella, which had witnessed such an elegant act of sensitivity, small in size but gigantic in symbolism that the young bride chose to begin the next chapter of her life.
A Sensitive Manuscript
Long before tree-hugging was in, and before the world went green, prior even to the smorgasbord of human and animal rights movements our world has welcomed in recent times, there existed an ancient document, the bedrock of a historic people and their law, that advocated these values and more.
That document is the Torah, which concerns itself not only with the wellbeing of man, but of animal and vegetative life as well, and even mandates respect for inanimate objects.
It promotes sensitivity and respect for all beings, regardless of their capacity for intelligence or emotive expression.
Following are but a few examples of the exceptional sensitivity the Torah encourages us to display towards our non-human neighbors in the diverse and multi-faceted world we inhabit.
Regarding animals we don't have to look far.
The very first set of G‑d-given commandments was actually not the famous Ten given at Sinai, but a group of seven.
Not George Orwell's Seven Commandments in Animal Farm, but the same amount given by G‑d to all of humanity at the dawn of civilization, called the Seven Noahide Laws.
You will find there, in the illustrious company of such fundamental and universal laws as the belief in G‑d and the forbiddance of murder and adultery, a law forbidding the practice of eating from live animals. Yes, concern for animal welfare!
The Torah sought to ingrain in its adherents a sense of compassion towards animalsIn addition to banning cruel behavior to animals, itself a moral contribution ahead of its times, the Torah sought to ingrain in its adherents a sense of compassion towards animals.
This can be seen from the emphasis the Torah places on a particular act of our forefather Jacob, when he served as a shepherd. The Bible (Genesis 33:17) says that: "for his cattle he made sukkot [booths or huts]; therefore the name of the place is called Sukkot." Jacob cared for his animals and built sukkot to protect them from the elements. So remarkable was the sensitivity he showed his animals, and so important was this lesson for posterity, that an entire town was named after this deed!
A Bad Hair Day
The following is a unique display of consideration for animals that was manifest in a puzzling detail of the Tabernacle's construction. Instead of first building walls and then a roof, G‑d commanded that the Tabernacle's covering first be built, followed by the walls.
But what's the point of creating a cover before there is anything to cover?
The reason for this: Immediately upon being notified that G‑d had honored them with the building of His home, the Mishkan, the righteous women of Israel responded with zeal.
The verse states: "All the women whose hearts inspired them with wisdom spun the goats [to create the panels that would cover the Tabernacle]."
What is the meaning of this strange phrase, to "spin the goats"?
Rashi explains: "This was extraordinary craftsmanship, for they would spin [the panels using] the fleece on the backs of the goats, before it was shorn from them." (This acrobatic feat was performed in order to produce "live" fleece rather than "dead" fleece, considered a more advantageous offering.)
It turned out, though, that due to the women's enthusiasm being greater than the men's, the beams and sockets that would make up the walls would be longer in coming.
Beyond mere animal-compassion, the Torah demands that we place our animals even before ourselves!Thus, rather than leave the goats "dreadlocked" until the walls were made, the goat-hair was quickly shorn and the panels for the Tabernacle's roof immediately made, so as to minimize their discomfort (and restore their self-image).
In addition: it turns out that beyond mere animal-compassion, the Torah demands that we place our animals even before ourselves!
Based on the order of the verse, "And I will give grass in your fields for your cattle, and [then] you shall eat and be satisfied," the Talmud derives the law that one is prohibited from eating before providing food for his or her animal.
Talk about animal rights.
On to the vegetable kingdom, called tzomeach.
A telling Biblical injunction prohibits soldiers from cutting down fruit trees when conducting a siege on an enemy city. Amazingly, we find that fruit-producing trees must be protected at all costs, even at the expense of an expedited military victory!
The extent of this mitzvah's importance is underscored by the words of Rabbi Chanina, a Talmudic sage, who declared that his son Shivchat actually died because he cut down a fig tree before its time; i.e., while it was still productive.
The inorganic world, called domem, does not escape our consideration and respect, either.
A moving expression of this idea is found in the Biblical injunction: "You shall not ascend with steps upon my altar [rather build a ramp], so that your nakedness will not be uncovered upon it."
Rashi points out, "[There was] no actual exposure of nakedness, for it is written, 'And make for them linen pants,' nonetheless, taking wide steps [on stairs] is close to [appears to be] exposing nakedness, and treats the stones in a humiliating manner…"
The inconvenience of a Holy Priest comes second to the dignity of a slab of lifeless stoneThus, we learn that the inconvenience of a Holy Priest, made to climb a ramp instead of steps while doing his sacred Temple duty, comes second to the dignity of a slab of lifeless stone.
Lest the Torah be confused with modern-day movements nobly promoting many of the rights outlined earlier, an important note is in order.
The Torah's basis and motive for advocating kindness and compassion towards non-humans is not fueled by self-interest, or the fear of our own delicate futures. ("If we don't take care of the planet today, tomorrow it won't be there to take care of us." Or, in the case of human rights efforts, "If we don't campaign for the freedom of all, one day we might lose our own.")
The Torah's concern stems rather from the fact that Judaism, as highlighted by Chassidic philosophy, maintains that there is a point of life, or "a spark of G‑d," in every aspect of creation. That spark is an extension of the Creator, and thus must be treated accordingly.
Rabbi Nissan Mangel, an author of note, was commissioned by the Rebbe to translate the Tanya into English. When it came to translating the word domem, he used the standard translation of "inanimate."
One of the major themes of Tanya (in Shaar haYichud v'haEmunah), however, is that in truth there is no such thing as something "inanimate," as everything contains a Divine spark.In truth there is no such thing as something "inanimate" The Rebbe edited his translation and replaced "inanimate" with "silent," meaning to say that while there is life even in domem, an object in this realm is "silent" about it, concealing the inherent Divine spark it possesses. Rabbi Mangel, still wanting to maintain an elegant style, kept the word "inanimate" and placed the word "silent" nearby in brackets. When the Rebbe edited the translation for the final time, he removed the brackets around "silent" and placed them around "inanimate."
The word "inanimate" in that context wasn't just a misnomer, a technical misuse of a word; the difference between these two words touches on the essence of reality, on its Divine root and makeup.
It is this point of Divinity present in all of creation to which we pay tribute and respect, and for which we exhibit sensitivity and consideration.
In the final analysis, then, this is a testament to an ultimate truth and a foundation of our world: that at our core we all come from one Source, continue to be one, and can – and will one day – live as one.
"Now, if regarding these stones which do not have the intelligence to object to their humiliation, the Torah says, 'Do not treat them in a humiliating manner,' in the case of your fellow man, who was created in the image of your Creator, and cares about his humiliation, how much more so must you treat him with respect!" —Rashi