A New Year for the Animals

Rosh Chodesh Elul
August 9, 2021

Kohenet is known for being woman-centered and using feminine God language, but it is also earth-centered and nature-centered in deep and meaningful ways. Reb Jill’s teaching for today illustrates this.

Today is Rosh Chodesh Elul, the first of the month that precedes Rosh Hashanah, the new year. But in Jewish tradition, we have many new years. Rosh Chodesh Elul is also known as the new year for the animals. Historically, this was when animals were counted as a year older for purposes of determining the tithe to be offered to the Holy One.

Fortunately, we no longer offer animal sacrifices. So what meaning can we bring to the new year of the animals? Rosh Hashanah, the new year of months, has centuries-old rituals and prayers. The new year for the trees, Tu b’Shvat, is celebrated with a seder, prayers, and mystical imagery. However, there is no corresponding established ritual for the furred, finned, and feathered. I think that is a sad omission, given how much we can learn from our fellow animals on this planet.

Jewish tradition thought so as well, because there is a text, the Perek Shira, which celebrates animals and the song they sing to the Creator. The story is told that King David, when he finished writing the Psalms, thought he was the cat’s pajamas, and bragged that no one had praised the Blessed Holy One as much or as well as he had. Along came a frog who told him to get over himself! For the frog by its very existence is performing a great mitzvah. We are called to feed the hungry, and the frog feeds the creatures who eat frogs. The frog said,

 “David! Do not become proud, for I recite more songs and praises than you. Furthermore, every song I say contains three thousand parables, as it says, ‘And he spoke three thousand parables, and his songs were one thousand five hundred.’ And furthermore, I am busy with a great mitsvah, and this is the mitsvah with which I am busy: there is a certain type of creature by the edge of the sea whose sustenance is entirely from [creatures living in] the water, and when it is hungry, it takes me and eats me, such that I fulfill that which it says, ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; for you shall heap coals of fire on his head, and the Holy One shall reward you’’”

How can we doubt our unique role and value in creation, when we see the humble frog celebrate its essence so joyfully? What other animals do we hear in the Perek Shira? There are too many to read all of them, but here are a few of my favorites:

The Crane is saying, “Give thanks to the Holy One with the lyre, make music for her with the ten-stringed harp.”

The Swallow is saying, “So that my soul shall praise you, and shall not be silent, Holy One, I shall give thanks to you forever.”

The Swift is saying: “My help is from the Holy One, Maker of Heaven and earth.”

The Domestic Goose is saying, “Give thanks to the Holy One, call upon her Name, make her works known amongst the peoples, sing to Her, make music for Her, speak of all her wonders.”

The Wild Goose…is saying, “A voice cries, prepare in the wilderness the way of the Holy One, make straight in the desert a path for her.”

The Spider is saying, “Praise her with sounding cymbals! Praise her with loud clashing cymbals!”

The Fly…is saying, “…Peace, peace for her who is far off and for her who is near, says the Holy One…’”

The Fishes are saying, “The voice of the Holy One is upon the waters, the Shekinah thunders, the Holy One is upon many waters.”

The Pig is saying: “The Holy One is good to the good, and to those committed at heart.”

The Cat is saying, “I have pursued my enemies and overtaken them, and I did not return until they were destroyed.” (Doesn’t that sound just like a cat?)

The Wild Animals are saying, “Blessed is the One Who is good and bestows good.”

The Elephant is saying: “How great are your works, Shekinah; Your thoughts are tremendously deep.”

The Snake is saying: “Shekinah supports all the fallen and straightens all the bent.”

The Scorpion is saying, “Shekinah is good to all, and her mercy is upon all of her handiwork.”

The Ant is saying, “Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.”

The Rat is saying: “Let every soul praise the Holy One, Hallelu-Yah!”

Yes, even the rat, the scourge of urban and suburban environments, praises the holy one. There’s a lesson for us in all these animals, shown by another story at the end of the Perek Shira. It’s said that one of the rabbis protested the dog having a song to the Holy One, because surely a dog was not worthy? An angel is sent to tell him to take back his words, because the dog also has its place in creation and merits its song. There follows a closing prayer which recognizes the role of all creation – animal, vegetable, and mineral – in connecting the four worlds and making the divine manifest in the mundane. It pays tribute to the “mysteries, wonders, and awesomeness” that is our world.

What do we learn from the animals about the new year and this month of Elul that we are entering? Think about the yearly migration of birds, butterflies, and other animals. We could learn much from them about the ebb and flow of life, about going out and returning.

What other lessons do we learn from this teaching about our earth? As I read this morning about the UN report on the rising global temperature and the ensuing damage to the earth, I thought about the songs of creation that will be forever silenced if we do not act more responsibly and take better care of our mother, earth. As we enter this month of healing, we must turn our thoughts not just to healing ourselves but also to healing the earth. We need to work toward tikkun olam in a physical as well as a spiritual sense.

Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb and others have called for the creation of a holiday honoring and celebrating animals. I am enchanted with this idea, and I hope that next year we will have a sacred space in one of my communities to do that.

Also published on the Pardes Hannah website.

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