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Powerful sermon sent to me by NJ rabbi, Shammai Engelmayer

Shammai’s Shabbat Sermon for Mishpatim

I’m going to begin with a word of caution. Some of what I have to say may be difficult to listen to. You’ll understand why soon enough.

Today’s parashah unveils the Sefer Ha-B’rit, the Book of the Covenant—the foundation document for God’s mamlechet kohanim v’goi kadosh, God’s kingdom of priests and holy nation. It makes up the three complete chapters that are the bulk of Parashat Mishpatim.

As you’ve heard me say in the past, in essence, these chapters are our constitution, our God-commanded constitution, the preamble for which—the Aseret Hadibrot, the Ten Statements, the so-called Ten Commandments—we read last Shabbat.

Towards the end of today’s parashah, we ratify this constitution with two words spoken by all the people: na-aseh v’nishma, we will do and we will listen. We’re so anxious, at least at that moment, to take up our role as God’s kingdom of priests that we say we’ll do whatever that constitution requires of us even before we hear what it is that it requires of us.

The Sefer Ha-B’rit, the Book of the Covenant, deals mainly with our responsibilities towards all people—citizen or stranger, man or woman, low-born or high-born, Israelite or anyone else.

We’ve studied this parashah in depth in the past, and we’ll surely do so again. Today, though, I want to concentrate on one often overlooked aspect of this constitution of ours: What it has to say about our responsibilities to all the other living creatures who share this planet with us—all creatures great and small other than humans.

From the very first chapter of Sefer B’reishit, the Book of Genesis, we’re told, albeit obliquely at first, that they, too, have feelings, just as we do, that they’re capable of understanding and even can reason things out for themselves, although not to the extent that we’re able to do. Why else would God give them two commandments to fulfill that God gave to us, as well: to be fruitful and multiply, and to be vegetarians?

As the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, z”l, wrote, “Judaism regards animals as sentient beings. They may not think or speak [in the way we humans do], but they do feel. They are capable of distress. There is such a thing as cruelty to animals, and as far as possible it should be avoided….[Just as it is with humans,] Animals, too, have feelings and they must be respected.”

Not only must we respect all non-human living creatures, the Torah insists that we humans also must be sensitive to their feelings, to their emotional health as well as their physical well-being. The Torah issues several commands to make sure that we are so sensitive.

There is, for example, the commandment, the mitzvah, in Sefer D’varim, the Book of Deuteronomy, regarding the mother bird. That law requires us to “let the mother go,” in its words, before we can take the eggs from its nest. Maimonides, the Rambam, explained the reason for that law this way: “Animals feel very great pain, there being no difference regarding this pain between humanity and the other animals. For the love and the tenderness of a mother for her child is not dependent on reason, but upon the activity of the imaginative faculty, which is found in most animals just as it is found in humanity….”

That’s what the Torah demands, but that’s not the world we live in.

Let’s talk turkey. Just on Thanksgiving alone, Americans consume an estimated 46 million turkeys each year, according to the National Turkey Federation. Here, though, are some other statistics we should be aware of:

ï 64 percent of those turkeys, somewhere around 29.4 million of them, are locked up while they’re alive in environments that lack fresh air. In too many cases, these turkeys breathe in dangerous levels of ammonia instead.

ï 61 percent of those turkeys are also denied any access to sunlight. They spend 20 hours a day exposed to continuous, artificial light instead.

ï 63 percent of those turkeys are often forced to endure painful mutilations to prevent aggressive behaviors due to overcrowding. This includes such things as beak-trimming and other physical alterations, and very often all such things are done without any pain killers.

ï 61 percent of turkeys are fed growth enhancement drugs and supplements to fatten them up, and they’re also often fed non-therapeutic antibiotics.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, thousands of those turkeys experience extreme hot or cold temperatures as they’re being transported to the slaughterhouse. Thousands of them also experience starvation, dehydration, suffocation, or death from blunt force trauma on the way to their deaths.

Life’s not much better for the egg-laying chickens we depend on.

The egg industry in the United States uses around 380 million hens to produce the eggs we buy. About 95 percent of these hens are packed into what’s called battery cages that are 15 inches high, and eight of these cages are stacked one on top of the other. There are usually six hens to a cage, although sometimes as many as 10 hens are shoved into them.

On average, each hen in one of those cages has less living space than an 8 1/2 x 11 piece of paper. That’s not an exaggeration. An 8 1/2 x 11 piece of paper measures 92 square inches. Egg farmers aren’t required to give each hen more than 67 square inches of space; that’s the minimum space required by the standards set by Egg Farmers of America, the industry cooperative. These hens can’t run, they can’t hop, they can’t even stretch their wings fully because they’d either hit the sides of the cage or another bird.

Now, sometimes hens lay eggs that produce chicks, and not all of them are female chicks, obviously. Because male chicks are of no use to egg farmers, an estimated 250 million of them are killed each year—and not humanely. They’re either suffocated to death in some way, or they’re thrown in alive into large industrial macerators and are ground up.

These hens, by the way, just like the turkeys, are forced to endure painful mutilations to prevent a variety of aggressive behaviors because of the overcrowded conditions they’re forced to endure.

Both dairy and meat cows are also subjected to painful mutilations that are performed without any pain killers. There are roughly 9 million dairy cows in the United States and about 31 million meat cows.

These cows are either locked away inside barns, or they’re placed in dirty feedlots. Meat cows spend their last six months on a feedlot before being sent to slaughter. A feedlot is an enclosed open muddy area or a building with concrete floors in which the meat cows, at least, are fattened up for slaughter. All of these feedlots are free of any forage. The cows can only eat what they’re given to eat, which is grain, not grass, and their stomachs aren’t able to digest grain easily, which is wht many of these cows suffer from digestive distress. 

Among other things, dairy cows are subjected to repeated impregnation, forced overproduction of milk, and poor nutrition.

As for calves that are used for veal, they’re taken from their mothers shortly after birth and forced to spend their very short lives cramped into tiny crates. As many of you know, I consider milk-fed veal to be non-kosher, and so do many halachic authorities, as well.

And then there are the pigs, forbidden to us but a popular source of food permissible to everyone else. During the pandemic, at least a quarter of a million healthy pigs were killed because they couldn’t be sent to slaughterhouses that had temporarily shut down due to staffing shortages. One of the ways they’re killed is known as ventilation shutdown plus, or VSD+. In VSD+, operators seal the barn, turn off the airflow, and add heat and sometimes steam to raise the temperature to as high as 170°F. Dying can take hours and, obviously, VSD+ causes the pigs great suffering.

Seafood is in a special class by itself when it comes to cruelty. Live lobsters are thrown into pots of boiling water. Raw oysters are often still alive when they’re eaten, although most “oysters on a half-shell” diners aren’t aware of this. The same is true for certain shrimp dishes and other crustaceans.

Let’s talk pets. Each day in the United States, around 4,100 dogs and cats are killed in shelters. One article I read said that New Yorkers snatched up dogs and cats in droves at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic because they were forced to stay home and pets gave them comfort. Now, though, many of these people are bringing their pets back to city shelters. One chain of shelters, this one run by Animal Care Centers of New York City, was taking in an average of 21 pets a day around the start of 2021. By summer, it was averaging three to four times that number—60 to 80 pets a day.

All of New York City’s shelters, like shelters all around the country, are at capacity or nearing it. So the average lifespan of most of these returned animals is around three days. Either someone else adopts them within that time, or they’re put down.

There’s a lot more I can tell you about how we care for animals in this country, or rather don’t care for them, and I could also tell you that it’s even worse in many other places around the world, but I think I’ve made the point.

The constitution of the mamlechet kohanim v’goi kadosh, the Kingdom of Priests and Holy Nation that God sets out this week in Mishpatim has a lot to say about all this, because, along with the many human-based issues it deals with, it begins to establish an entire section of Jewish law known as Tzar Ba-alei Chaim, which quite literally means Causing Distress to Living Things. Tzar Ba-alei Chaim forbids causing unnecessary physical or emotional pain or suffering to animals, birds and fish.

That body of law starts here in the Sefer Ha-B’rit, the Book of the Covenant, and It does so in four places. We briefly discussed one of those two places earlier in the Torah study: “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” As I said earlier, can anyone imagine anything as gross as cooking a baby goat in the very milk its mother supplied to nourish it?

One of Rashi’s grandsons, the medieval biblical commentator Rabbi Samuel ben Meir—the Rashbam—put the matter bluntly. He wrote that to use a nanny goat‘s milk—milk intended for her offspring’s nourishment—to cook the kid in it “is a shameful, distasteful thing.”

Rashbam then noted several of those other Torah laws that fall under the Tzar Ba-alei Chaim heading and came to this conclusion: “The Torah teaches you such things as a way of emphasizing…respect for life.”

Sometimes, this concern Torah law has for the welfare of all non-human living creatures shows up in oblique ways, as Chazal, our Sages of Blessed Memory, saw it. For example, there’s the second mitzvah of the four found in this week’s parashah. It says, “When a man steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters it or sells it, he shall pay five oxen for the ox, and four sheep for the sheep.”

Why is there a fine of five oxen but only four sheep? The sage Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai said: “…in the case of a sheep, which was usually carried on the thief’s shoulder [meaning the thief showed compassion for the sheep], only four-fold has to be paid.” In other words, the amount of restitution is reduced because the thief showed consideration for the sheep he took.

More often, concern for animals and birds shows up in pointed references. The last two Tzar Ba-alei Chaim mitzvot in this week’s parashah are examples of that.

The first one is this: “When you see the she-donkey of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him.” The Torah later on extends that to helping to include raising the she-donkey of someone who’s not your enemy. That would seem obvious, but the Torah doesn’t take such things for granted.

The second example is also a very telling one. The Torah last week in the Ten Statements, the Aseret Ha-dibrot, already declared that on Shabbat, not even animals could be made to work. Now that mitzvah is repeated, only this time with an explanation: “in order that your ox and your she-donkey may rest….” Our animals have the same right as we do to a day of rest, and it’s on the same day as our day of rest. 

Such laws run throughout the Torah. In D’varim, in Deuteronomy, we’re forbidden from muzzling an ox during threshing because its instinct would be to graze and the muzzle would cause it psychological pain. Psychological pain is behind the mother bird commandment, as well, and it’s also behind two mitzvot found in Leviticus 22, Vayikra 22. One prohibits removing for a sacrifice a firstling from its mother before she has weaned it. The other prohibits sacrificing an animal and its young on the same day.

Remember what I said earlier about veal calves. This is one of the reasons I consider veal to be treif.

Neither prohibition, sad to say, is commonly observed in the modern meat industry.

As for why the Torah is so concerned about how all non-human life forms should be treated, a biblical commentator, grammarian, and philosopher of the late 13th and early 14th centuries, Joseph ben Abba Mari Ibn Caspi by name, offered this explanation. All creatures great and small, he said, were created from the same substance as we were, and thus are “k’ilu avoteinu,” meaning “they are like our ancestors.” As such, they must be treated with the same respect due to our human ancestors.

That’s why the Torah wanted all creatures, including us humans, to be vegetarians. When that proved impossible, it amended the rules to allow meat—but then added new rules designed to keep humans from causing pain to the creatures we kill for food.

Those rules are meant to apply to everyone. The Peope Israel, however, were given a far more restrictive code than humankind in general, precisely to keep us focused on the Torah’s intent. Killing animals—and presumably birds—for food in ancient Israel originally was limited to the sacred precincts of the Mishkan, the desert tabernacle. In other words, it had to be done under sacred cover, in acknowledgement that killing the animal was being done under God’s grudging sanction, not to mention God’s watchful eye.

The 19th century commentator Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explained what this law was actually saying. “Slaughtering an animal [outside the sacred precinct, which is how we create some kind of sacred cover] is judged like the killing of a human being.”

In other words, it’s akin to an act of murder.

That rule, though, could only work in the confined area of a wilderness encampment. Once the people were settled in the land, their lust for meat would cause them to violate the law if they lived too far away from the sanctuary, or the Temple later on. This could lead to a general rejection of Torah law, so the Torah amends it in Deuteronomy, in D’varim:

“When the Lord your God shall enlarge your border…, and you shall say, ‘I will eat meat,’ because your soul longs to eat meat, you may eat meat to your heart’s desire. If the place which the Lord your God has chosen to put His name there is too far from you, then you shall kill of your herd and of your flock, which the Lord has given you, as I have commanded you, and you shall eat in your gates, to your heart’s desire.”

It’s the “as I have commanded you” phrase that’s critical. The sacred cover is replaced by “basar ta-avah,” meat eaten solely to satisfy one’s craving. God continues to control the situation, however, by setting forth a humane way of killing. To eat meat killed in any other way denies that any divine sanction attaches to the killing and the eating—and, in effect, denies that there’s any need to treat animals or birds humanely.

Chazal, our Sages of Blessed Memory, inferred from this that meat-eating should be a sometimes thing, at best. “The Torah teaches here…that a person should not eat meat unless he has an extraordinary appetite for it,” an extraordinary appetite for it not just an everyday craving. Chazal pointedly added, “a person should not teach his child to [have an eagerness for] meat….”

Because the Torah takes very seriously the welfare of animals or birds, Chazal even set aside rabbinic-ordained Shabbat proscriptions to save them from suffering. This even includes unloading a pack animal that’s laboring under too great a burden, according to the Rambam.

The Sages even went so far as to prohibit a person from owning an animal, or bird for that matter, unless he or she could care for it; required that animals be given their dinner before humans get theirs; and banned the injuring or killing of animals—and by extension birds—for no valid reason.

All of these Tzar Ba-alei Chaim laws begin this Shabbat, here in the Sefer Ha-B’rit, the Book of the Covenant. Too many of us, though, take little or no notice of the four mitzvot found here that I’ve mentioned, just as they take no notice of any of the other mitzvot I’ve mentioned, and the others I didn’t mention. Too many people, when they come across one of these laws, just roll their eyes at what they consider to be absurdities.

They’re not absurdities.

As a Holy Nation, a goi kadosh, we need to be mindful of how the Torah, beginning this week, wants us to treat all non-human life forms—we must be mindful of it, and we must integrate it into our lives.

That’s how we achieve holiness.

As a mamlechet kohanim v’goi kadosh, a Kingdom of Priests and Holy Nation, we need to spread that message to the rest of the world.

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