With the 2012 Olympics in London approaching, the organizers of the event propose to recreate the English countryside by using live animals in the opening ceremony. The Jewish Vegetarian Society, which believes that this will misrepresent industrial farming, oppose the plan.
Animals have always played an important role in Jewish practice and in Jewish literature. On Shabbat, for example, Jews are commanded to feed their animals before feeding the household. This week’s Torah portion features a rather unique and interesting story about animals that only highlights their worldly importance.
The Torah portion for Balak first tells the story of Balaam, a non-Jewish prophet sent by the king of Moab to curse the nation of Israel. G-d appears to Balaam to in a dream telling him not to curse the Israelites because they are blessed. The king of Moab again tells Balaam to curse the people and again G-d comes to Balaam in a dream. He allows Balaam to speak under the condition that he only speaks the words that G-d tells him.
Important Moabite individuals accompany Balaam to the location where he is supposed to curse the nation. G-d sends an angel to stop Balaam by standing in the middle of the road, but Balaam cannot see the angel. Only Balaam’s donkey can see the angel, and stops in his tracks. Balaam, frustrated with his donkey, strikes it. Upon striking his donkey, the animal speaks to Balaam, condemning his harsh actions. Balaam suddenly is able to see the angel and listens to the angel speak out against the treatment of his animal.
Balaam meets with Balak and they prepare to curse the Israelites. Balaam speaks the words that G-d tells him and he blesses the nation instead of cursing it. Balak is less than pleased and travels with Balaam to an alternate location in the hopes that Balaam will then curse the nation. The same situation unfolds, so they try another new location. A third time he speaks only blessings to the nation of Israel. Balak sends Balaam on his way, but not before Balaam prophesizes about the end of days.
The portion ends with the Israelites being seduced by Moabite and Medianite women and worshiping their idols. G-d punishes the nation with a plague and the plague does not cease until Pinchas kills the guilty parties in both the Israelite and non-Israelite camps.
In the portion, Balaam realizes that by mistreating his ass, he makes an ass out of himself. Our deep and profound respect for animals and sensitivity to their suffering is evidenced time and time again throughout the Torah and Jewish literature.
The Jewish Vegetarian Society wants to minimize any harm to the animals that may be caused by the noise, lights, and overstimulation of the opening Olympic ceremonies. Although they may be picking the wrong battle to fight, their intentions are rooted in Jewish values.