The previous letter – “Birds of Heaven” – cited a prophecy regarding the harmony among all creatures in the messianic age. The prophecy concludes with the following verse which reveals the cause of this universal harmony:
“They will neither injure nor destroy in all of My sacred mountain; for the earth will be filled with knowledge of Hashem as water covering the sea bed.” (Isaiah 11:6-9)
“Knowledge of Hashem” – The spreading of the knowledge of Hashem will affect even the animals that now prey on one another; thus, their nature will be elevated, and they will no longer be violent. (Commentary of Malbim)
The above prophecy reveals that even the animals will have a spiritual awareness that will elevate their nature. This week, I will begin to share with you some stories about animals in the Land of Israel that developed an elevating spiritual awareness which is known as, “chassidus” – a term which I shall explain in this letter:
Long before the Chassidic movement began in the 18th century, the term “chassid” was used to describe someone who lovingly serves the Creator and all creation. In fact, Aharon, the Kohen, was described as a chassid (Deuteronomy. 33:8).The chassid serves with a higher spiritual awareness known as “chassidus” – loving devotion. This loving devotion leads the chassid to do even more than what is required by Torah law. According to the great sage, Hillel, one needs the wisdom of the Torah, the Divine Teaching, in order to become a chassid (Pireki Avos, 2:5). In the following teaching, our sages reveal that animals belonging to chassidim can also develop the quality of chassidus:
”Just as the early tzadikim (righteous people) were chassidim, so too, their animals were chassidim.” (Avos D'Rabbi Noson, end of chapter 8)
The sages then cite the following example:
“The camels of Avraham, our father, did not enter a house in which there was idol worship” (ibid).
Before we can understand the chassidus of Avraham’s camels, we first need to understand the chassidus of Avraham. It is well-known that Avraham helped many people in his generation to rediscover the One Creator of the universe. Through stressing the One Source of all creation, Avraham helped them to rediscover the unity of creation. Avraham therefore opposed the idolatry of his era, for he was aware that the deification of any fragment of creation – an aspect of nature, a human being, a nation, or humanity itself – can cause human beings to lose their consciousness of the unity and common origin of all creation. Rabbi Abraham Yaffen, a noted teacher of Jewish ethics in the early 20th century, elaborates on this idea in an essay that he wrote about our father, Avraham, and his love for humanity:
“It is precisely he (Avraham), who dedicated his life to acts of loving-kindness, who was also the great zealot who dedicated his life to the negation of idolatry in his generation. The reason for this can be understood: Idolatry is based on the assumption that the various forces within the world are separate one from the other; therefore, each human being is also considered to be separate from his neighbor.” (Mishel Avos - An anthology of Commentary on Pirkei Avos, p. 144)
Rabbi Yaffen adds that when Avraham would see the people of his generation fighting with each other, and how each would offer sacrifices to his own god in order to try to gain support in his struggle against his neighbor, Avraham would teach them that, on the contrary, “each should help his neighbor, for one God created them and desires the honor of all of them.” Avraham therefore helped people to achieve a higher spiritual awareness which made them aware of the unity of all creation.
In their own way, the animals under Avraham’s care developed this higher spiritual awareness. Our sages find a source for this tradition in the story of how Avraham’s servant, Eliezer, traveled from the Promised Land to Avraham’s relatives in Charan, in order to bring back a wife for Avraham’s son, Isaac. (To some degree, most of Avraham’s relatives were still involved with idolatry.) When Eliezer arrived, Laban, a relative of Avraham, went to greet him, and he said to Eliezer:
“Come, O blessed of Hashem! Why should you stand outside when I have cleared the house and place for the camels?” (Genesis 24:31)
According to the teaching of the sages in Avos D’Rabbi Nosson (ibid), the above words of Laban have a deeper meaning, and they are conveying the following message:
“I have cleared the house” – I have cleared the house of idols so you may feel free to enter.
“Place for the camels” – Avraham’s camels would not enter a place containing idolatry, so Laban informed him that he also cleared the place for the camels from idolatry.
Avos D’Rabbi Nosson then cites another story which took place in the Land of Israel at the end of the Second Temple period:
Once the donkey of Rabbi Chaninah ben Dosa was stolen. The robbers tied it up in a yard and left it straw, barley, and water, but it would not eat or drink. (The righteous donkey did not want to benefit from anything which was stolen.) The robbers said, “Why should we let it die and befoul our yard?” So they got up and opened the gate and let it out. The donkey walked along braying until it reached the home of Rabbi Chaninah ben Dosa. When it arrived, the rabbi’s son heard its voice and said to his father, “That sounds like our animal.” The rabbi said, “Open the door, my son, for it has nearly died of hunger.” (The rabbi knew that his donkey had not eaten the food of the robbers due to its higher spiritual awareness.) Immediately, the lad opened the door and placed before it straw, barley, and water, which the donkey ate and drank.
The Talmud (Chullin 7a and 7b) tells the following story which took place in the Land of Israel: Rabbi Pinchas ben Ya’ir came to a certain inn. They placed barley before the donkey, but it would not eat. The barley was sifted, but it would not eat. The barley was carefully picked, but it would not eat. Rabbi Pinchas ben Ya'ir said to them: “Perhaps it had not been tithed?” They removed a tithe and it ate. Rabbi Pinchas ben Ya'ir thereupon exclaimed: “This poor creature goes forth to do the will of its Creator, and you would feed it untithed produce?”
A reference to the above story appears in a poetic elegy which we chant during the Fast of Tisha B’Av, when we mourn over the loss of the Temple and the resulting exile from the Land of Israel. During the morning of Tisha B’Av, it is customary to chant a series of “kinos” (elegies) which express our yearning for the Land of Israel, Jerusalem, and the Temple. In Kinah 37, we recall how the Land of Israel had animals and birds that had the potential to become spiritually wise like the donkey of Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair. The “Kol B’Ramah” commentary on this elegy explains that this was because the air of the Land of Israel has a spiritual quality which enabled birds and animals to become wise like the donkey of Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair.
The animals in the above stories achieved the higher spiritual awareness of chassidus for the following two reasons:
They belonged to chassidim, and they were influenced by the enlightening air of the Land of Israel.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
1. The Talmud states in the name of Rabbi Zeira: “The air of the Land of Israel makes one wise.” (Baba Basra: 158b)
2. The animals in the above stories were influenced by the behavior of their righteous caretakers who were great chassidim. The higher consciousness achieved by these animals should inspire us to develop our own unique spiritual potential as human beings who are created in the Divine image. One of the ways in which we can develop this potential is to choose spiritual role models who are “living” the Torah – the Divine Teaching. As Maimonides writes:
“It is natural for a human being's thoughts and actions to be patterned after those of his friends and neighbors and for him to conduct himself in the way of his society. A person must therefore attach himself to the righteous and always sit among the sages so that he will learn from their ways.” (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos De'os 6:1)
“The air of the Land of Israel makes one wise; thus, it would also be beneficial to live among the righteous and sages in our sacred Land.