When Balak, king of Moab, sees the defeat of his neighboring kings, he hires the non-Jewish prophet Bilaam to curse the Israelites. Bilaam, however, can say only what God has commanded, and so he utters blessings instead.
The story of Bilaam is probably best known for the comical episode of his confrontation with his she-ass. When Bilaam accepts Balak’s commission and travels to Moab, God sends an angel to block the way. The ass Bilaam is riding sees the terrible angel in the road with a drawn sword and refuses to move forward, prompting several beatings from her master. Finally, the Torah says, “the Lord opened the ass’s mouth” and it spoke: “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?” You have ridden me for years, and you know I don’t normally behave this way.
Finally, Bilaam sees the angel. In the felicitous words of a colleague — God makes an ass out of Bilaam who cannot see what is obvious to a donkey, namely, that Bilaam is flouting God’s will.
Moreover, the ass’s complaint is completely legitimate. The Torah contains many commandments prohibiting cruelty to animals:
• If you see an animal staggering under its burden, you must help the owner unload it, even if the owner is your enemy.
• You may not yoke an ass and an ox together to a plow; their greatly different strengths will hurt the weaker animal.
• You must return a lost animal to its owner; if you cannot return it right away, you must provide it with food and water and milk it if necessary.
And the laws about the treatment of animals cover more than cruelty: Domestic animals may not work on Shabbat, and Halacha requires that at the end of the day, a person must feed his animals before he sits down to his own meal.
These and other laws require us to provide for the welfare of the animals, but nowhere in the Torah will you find the concept of animal “rights.” The Torah teaches that human beings may use animals for any legitimate purpose — work, food, clothing, medical research. However, we must do everything possible to minimize tza’ar ba’alei chaim, causing pain to living creatures.
Quite simply, there’s a difference between people — created in the image of God — and animals. I know many people who consider their pets members of the family, and I know pets can provide important benefits, not only as service animals but also as companions. Still, there are limits. I once turned down a request to include the bride’s poodle as part of her wedding ceremony.
Animals are God’s creatures, so the Torah teaches that we may use animals for our benefit — as long as we care for their welfare. What does that mean? Personally, I would draw the line between using animals in research that promises to provide a cure for cancer and using them to test cosmetics (but, then, I don’t wear makeup).
So, by all means, enjoy animals — as pets or for dinner. But you can rest assured that this rabbi won’t be officiating at any “bark mitzvas”!