One of my dogs has a slight limp, the result of an abusive past owner and advancing age. Lately, it’s become more pronounced, and this weekend it became apparent that something was wrong.
I made an appointment, and the young vet who examined him told me that my dog might have cancer and should have part of his foot amputated. I had never met this particular veterinarian before, and asked several questions, all of which he answered by urging amputation.
It seemed precipitous to me, especially since he only suspected cancer. I worried that he wasn’t thinking about my dog’s well-being, or mine. So I waited until my own vet was in the office; we talked, and decided on a more cautious approach.
If the young veterinarian had studied this week’s Torah portion* he would know that the Torah expects us to think about the effect our actions have on others. Sometimes, that means not acting impulsively; sometimes it means acting immediately.
When it comes to animals, Deuteronomy is serious about their well-being. A donkey gets lost? Go find its owner. An ox and an ass yoked together to plow your field? No way; not fair to the smaller animal. A mother bird sitting on her eggs? You’d better shoo her away before you take them for yourself.
When it comes to human relationships, it gets more complicated. Sometimes we’re told to go slow – for instance, when it comes to punishing a wayward son. Other situations require that we proceed with alacrity; a laborer must not be made to wait for his pay.
Rabbi Brad Artson says that all of these requirements fit into the general category of “you must not remain indifferent.”
It’s easy to be indifferent, hard to care, even harder to act. When we come upon someone holding a handwritten sign asking for help, it’s easy to look away and keep on walking. Harder to stop and give a buck; harder still to sit down and start a conversation.
Watching the news this week, it’s been easy, albeit heart-wrenching, to gape at videos of flooded Houston streets, people being rescued off their rooftops, families sleeping on the uncarpeted floor of a convention center. It’s hard to write a check (although donating online is ridiculously easy – give it a try if you haven’t yet) and it is harder still to find a way to become actively engaged on a personal level.
If we let ourselves slip into indifference, we also lose our capacity to be truly human. Elie Wiesel said that indifference is the epitome of evil; he wrote:
“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”
Our Torah teaches us that in order to rise above indifference we must infuse our every day actions with meaning, being aware of our effect on the others around us, whether they be human or animal, plant or the planet itself.
It’s seldom easy. My other favorite quote from Elie Wiesel is this: “Whenever an angel says ‘Be not afraid!’ you’d better start worrying. A big assignment is on the way.”
The most reliable angels I can think of? Us. You and me. Each of us can be the angel whispering in our own ear, challenging ourselves to take on the big assignments, the really hard ones, the really important ones.
It’s time to start whispering. Shabbat Shalom.
*Deuteronomy 21:10 through 25:19