by Brenner Glickman (Sarasota, FL)
Does an animal have a soul?
It’s a question that Maimonides explores in his commentary on the Torah’s commandment to let a mother bird go free when taking her fledglings or eggs.
Maimonides suggests that the mother bird is like a human mother–capable of care and love– and he teaches that the essence of this commandment is mercy… mercy for the mother and recognition of her feelings.
“There is no difference in this case between the pain of people and the pain of other living things,” he writes.
In other words, we cannot destroy her young in her presence because it would be too hurtful for her to witness. We must set her free. She is like us.
Still, this question–does an animal have a soul?–haunts me because of something personal in my life right now.
At the beginning of this summer, our dog, Mazel, received a devastating diagnosis.
Normally, when we come home, Mazel gives us such a greeting, I cannot even tell you. He jumps, he yelps, he licks, and just shows us in every way how happy he is to see us.
But one evening in June we came home and there was no greeting.
We found Mazel lying on the floor unable to get up.
We took him to the animal ER. After a few tests, the vet told us what we most feared. Mazel was filled with cancerous tumors and suffered from massive internal bleeding. There was nothing we could do.
The doctor told us to take him home and spend his last few hours showering him with love.
Mazel was our dog for ten years, our first child, if you will. We picked him out at the pound and gave him a home and a life and love. And he returned the love every day and with every lick.
When he was still a puppy, he comforted me when my grandmother was dying. I will remember it forever.
I was sitting on the couch in the living room and I started to cry. Mazel walked right over and sat at attention right in front of me. He looked right into my eyes, and then he tilted his head to the side, just like so. And then he jumped on the couch and nuzzled me.
The thing is–Mazel was not allowed on the couch. He knew not to jump on the couch. He also knew that at that moment he was supposed to jump on the couch.
We started to make plans for Mazel’s burial. We were conflicted. We wanted to bury him whole, in keeping with Jewish tradition. But we decided to cremate him instead, so we could bury his urn on my family’s island in Maine. It was his favorite place in the world, and we were planning on going in August.
And then something happened. Mazel revived. His bleeding stopped. He started to feel better and walk around. After a few days, it was like he was himself again.
We were delighted beyond words. We knew it wouldn’t last, but we were so grateful for every moment and every day we had with him. We hugged him and kissed him every chance we got.
And he lived all of June.
And he lived all of July.
And then, on August 2nd, he came with us to Maine like he did every summer.
And he had a ball in Maine.
And then, one evening, he got still again, and, a few hours later, he died.
He had made it to Maine, where we were able to bury him in the manner we had wanted, in the place that he liked best.
My brother had just lost his dog a few months earlier.
He said to me, “They give you so much love, and they don’t ask for anything.”
And I thought, that is so wrong! Mazel asked for stuff all the time. He asked for food, he asked to go out, he asked to come back in.
But that is not what my brother meant.
They ask for so little from us, and they give us so much.
We miss him so much. Our house is so empty without him. We will get another dog soon, but not just yet. We need to mourn for this one.
My wife imagines that when our time comes and we go to heaven, Mazel will be waiting there for us and give us a great greeting. I like that a lot. I like that a whole lot.
I am so proud that we come from a tradition which recognizes that animals are precious and that they have, as Maimonides suggests, a soul capable of so much love.
Brenner Glickman is rabbi of Temple Emanu-el in Sarasota, FL, where he and his family have adopted a new dog, “Jerry” (also known as Jerusalem). You can visit Rabbi Glickman’s blog at http://www.jlive.org/profiles/blog/list?user=3o0apsblovluy