The Torah requires that we feed our animals ahead of ourselves.1 Wake up and feed Spot before indulging in your breakfast. This doesn’t mean that we must feed our animals with our last piece of bread while we die of starvation. Human life takes absolute precedence over animal life. But if we have sufficient funds to feed both, animals should be fed before mealtime. Very simply, the Torah is giving a humane message to put the needs of dependent creatures before our own.

If you are familiar with Chassidic philosophy, you know that oftentimes what seems to be a very simple statement in the Torah actually has a deeply spiritual subtext. On a metaphorical level, we each have an inner animal, a base nature that is entirely self-absorbed. Our task in life is to subdue our animal nature by reining in our impulses, or to sublimate the animal by making it more soulful.

This task is the reason for our soul’s descent from the heavenly abode where it resided before we were born. The soul was perfectly content to serve G‑d in its spiritual realm, where it beheld the divine, trembled in awe and melted in ecstasy. But it was given the mission to descend from heaven and enter the human body. Its purpose is not merely to continue to serve G‑d on its own, though this remains the soul’s greatest joy, but to teach the body and train our base animal nature to serve G‑d.

Our soul would like nothing better than to seclude itself all day in prayer and meditation. But the soul didn’t come here to improve itself; it can perfect itself much more freely in the spiritual realm from which it came. It descended to this material world to refine our animalistic urges, to transform a self-absorbed being into a selfless one. It must teach the animal the value of doing mitzvot and learning Torah. This is the soul’s priority, and it must come first.

Benefit to the Soul

There is no question that this is a difficult challenge to the soul. It wants to soar to transcendental levels of sacred inspiration, and instead is made to spend eight to ten decades working with a stubborn, lazy and ignorant animal. But in return, the soul reaches a level it could never have achieved on its own.

Whereas before birth the soul indulged itself with spiritual absorption, the soul is now devoted to a cause greater than itself. After a hundred and twenty years, when the soul returns to its heavenly home, it will climb far higher than before.

By training the body to serve G‑d, the soul carved out a little piece of the material world for G‑d, creating an abode for G‑d in the lower realm. This was G‑d’s original intention in creation, and the soul was given the opportunity to play a role in this cosmic purpose.

The soul descended to teach a selfish animal to become selfless, and in the process learned a lesson. Sacred as its spiritual ministrations were before its descent, it was, in a subtle sense, a selfish pursuit. The soul now reaps the benefit of its efforts and learns the lesson it labored to teach: that in the end, we are doubly rewarded when we put others first.