Idol-Sniffing Camels

Posted in memory of Yehudah Ben Moshe, Z’L, whose Bar Mitvah Perasha was Chaye Sarah – delivered at Ezra Bessaroth on Shabbat Perashat Chaye Sarah…

On Shabbat, I wished, on behalf of the congregation, a hearty Mazal Tov to Yehuda Yegudayav, who celebrated his 75th birthday over the weekend. The Bukharian Jewish members are a true institution at Ezra Bessaroth, and we are delighted to share in all of their joyous occasions.

Hearing about Yehuda’s milestone got me thinking about family; in a couple of weeks’ time, I head once again to Canada to visit my Mom, who just turned 84 years old עד מאה ועשרים שנה. A few months ago, the doctor told her that her new aortic valve should be good for 17 more years!

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not the world’s greatest traveler. Especially intimidating to me are the bomb-sniffing dogs at the airport. Speaking of trained dogs, this past week, the drug-sniffing dogs at Sea-Tac airport had their hours slashed with the passage of Initiative 502. Following the vote, Reuters reported that “prosecutors in Washington state’s two most populous counties plan to dismiss scores of misdemeanor marijuana possession cases following passage of a landmark voter initiative earlier this week to legalize pot for adult recreational use.”

Not only are there bomb and drug-sniffing dogs, the Torah recognizes the possibility of idol- sniffing camels!

The evidence? In this past week’s Torah portion, Avraham’s servant Eliezer arrives at the home of Rivka and is warmly greeted by her brother Lavan, whose hospitality knows no bounds:

וַיֹּאמֶר, בּוֹא בְּרוּךְ יְהוָה; לָמָּה תַעֲמֹד, בַּחוּץ, וְאָנֹכִי פִּנִּיתִי הַבַּיִת, וּמָקוֹם לַגְּמַלִּים.

And he said, come in, the blessed one of Hashem, why are you standing outside? I have cleaned out the home and a place for the camels.

At first blush, this is a pretty innocent verse: Lavan invites Eliezer in, assuring him that there is plenty of room in his home for both Avraham’s servant and his animals.

On location, Rashi explains the term פניתי הבית I cleared out the house – as Lavan assuring Eliezer that all traces of idolatry have been removed from the house. Avot D’Rebbe Natan takes this idea one step further: Lavan is also saying that he has cleared away the idols so that the camels would agree to enter the home. “I cleared out the house – and a place for the camels – by removing the idols.” According to Avot D’Rebbe Natan, the camels had previously “sniffed out” the idols and were refusing to enter…..

So not only are there bomb and drug-sniffing dogs, but there are idol-sniffing camels!

This recalls a Gemara in Tractate Hulin, where we learn of the famous donkey of Rabbi Pinchas Ben Ya’ir: R. Pinchas is on his way on a mission to redeem captives, when he stops at a lodge; the innkeepers place some barley in front of his donkey, but it refuses to eat. They sift and clean the grain, to no avail; the beast remains recalcitrant!

R. Pinchas asks the innkeepers if they had purchased the barley from someone who may not have tithed the produce; they reply in the affirmative. R. Pinchas’ response? He reprimands the innkeepers,

“This poor beast is on its way to do the will of its maker, and you are giving it untithed crops? “

The Gemara goes on to question the halachic problem referred to in the story – does one really need to tithe crops fed to animals? It brings a proof that only human food needs tithing. The Gemara’s resolution? If the crops were initially designated for an animal, they need not be tithed; if they are initially designated for a person – and only later served to an animal – they need  tithing.

The ultimate message of this story? G-d does not bring about misfortune and transgression through the animals of righteous people – how much moreso does He protect righteous people themselves! In other words, divine intervention prevented the beast from consuming the untithed produce.

I would like to extract a slightly different point from this piece: When someone is on his way to do a mitzvah, all of his resources, his property: inanimate objects, animals….become subsumed within this mitzvah activity. The property is viewed as an extension of him. Just as Hashem wishes to facilitate the performance of mitzvot, He paves the way for all of their resources to aid in that effort.

If that’s the case, then it behooves us to begin to appreciate all of the financial and other resources at our disposal – and to utilize them for the purpose for which they were granted us.

This same concept appears in a Rashi in Perashat Vayishlach. After Ya’akov crosses over the Nahal Yabok, he returns, and soon engages in the famous wrestling match with the angel. Grappling with the idea of why Ya’akov would remain alone, Rashi explains that he returned to collect some small earthenware vessels. At first blush, it seems that Ya’akov Avinu is quite petty! The deeper understanding, though, is that Ya’akov was aware that every person has a purpose for which he was created; G-d therefore also gives everyone exactly what he needs to carry out his individual mission. These earthenware vessels, as minor as they may seem, Ya’akov saw as essential to fulfilling his life’s work. Like the donkey of R. Pinchas ben Ya’ir, the vessels of Ya’akov were an extension of him.

This perspective reinforces a very refreshing and inspiring theme that we have developed on previous occasions. Rambam quotes the verse בכל דרכיך דעהו – Know Him in all of your ways…. Should someone, engaged in a mundane activity like shopping, have the intention to purchase and prepare healthy food that will energize him to do more mitzvot– the shopping trip itself becomes an extended mitzvah event!

Eliezer is an extension of monotheist Avraham and the idol-sniffing camels are an extension of Eliezer; they therefore interact with their reality as would their owner.

This is also hinted at in R. Pinchas Ben Ya’ir’s words in the Gemara in Tractate Hulin: “This poor beast is on its way to do the will of its maker, and you are giving it untithed crops?” R. Pinchas surely did not believe that this beast had the capacity to appreciate that it was on its way to do the mitzvah of redeeming captives! Rather, R. Pinchas was actually saying, “I am using this animal to carry out the will of my Maker…..”

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