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Ekev and Feeding Compassion

The Talmud reports that Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav: It is forbidden to eat before feeding one's animal. (Brachot 40a)

What is the import of this ruling? It would be cruel to eat in front of our hungry animals and pets. Our concern for God’s creation extends to animals as well as to humans. Compassion is taught by caring for pets. Attending to their cries, and pangs of hunger, molds a caring heart.

The rabbis derive this law from the following verse: "I will give grass in your fields for your cattle, and then, you shall eat and be satisfied." (Deuteronomy 11:15) Because the Torah speaks first about cattle and then about human beings, the rabbis rule that we must feed our animals before satisfying our own hunger.

It is fascinating that the ancient rabbis derive this teaching from the order of the verse’s words. Their reasoning reminds us that we live in a world not only where words matter but also the order of these words. They continue to teach us that compassion begins by reaching out to others first. Only then can we reach out to ourselves. Only then do we become sated.

Can compassion really be taught by sprinkling a few crumbs of food in a fish tank or by filling a dog’s or cat’s bowl with food before sitting down to our own meals? The Talmud’s answer is yes. Yes, absolutely. Before my hunger is satisfied I must first provide for others, I must first reach out to others. I must, in this case, reach down to those who cannot care for themselves, and provide for them. It begins by pausing, and noting the needs of other creatures.

Our spiritual hunger is sated when we turn to others, when we open our hands to all of God’s creatures.