Chayei Sarah for Tots: Having a Pet Can Help Your Child to Learn Responsibility

Chayei Sarah, Genesis 23:1−25:18

D'Var Torah By: Ellen and Peter Allard

Chayei Sarah, Genesis 23:1–25:18

Before he was done praying, Rebekah…was going forth with her pitcher on her shoulder. She was an exceedingly beautiful girl, of marriageable age, whom no man had yet known. She went down to the spring, filled her pitcher, and went up. The slave ran toward her and said, "Let me sip a little water from your pitcher." And she replied, "Drink, sir!" Quickly she lowered her pitcher on her hand and let him drink. The drinking done, she said, "I will draw some for your camels, too, till they are done drinking." Quickly emptying her pitcher in the trough and she again ran to the well for all his camels.

-Genesis 24:15-19

One of the sweetest pleasures of teaching young children is witnessing their delight as they play or interact with animals, real or stuffed. Whether we're reading Brown Bear, Brown Bear by Bill Martin, Jr., or singing Raffi's version of "Going to the Zoo" or holding a Teddy Bear Picnic in the middle of winter, children seem to have a special connection with all things animal! Animals are quite inspiring and offer a world of discovery for young children, and in learning about animals, children are also learning about themselves.

Parashat Chayei Sarah provides one of those golden opportunities in studying Torah with young children: the opportunity to help students relate to the parashah through something to which they already feel connected. Integrated learning at its best!

Although there is some generalization here, the interest that many children take in animals provides a great connection to the story of Rebekah, the matriarch. After Sarah dies, Abraham sends one of his servants from Canaan to Nahor to find a wife for Isaac from among his (Abraham's) people. When the servant arrives at the well, he asks that God will let the maiden who offers water to his camels be the one who is chosen for Isaac. Soon after, Rebekah comes to the well and offers both the servant and his camels water from her pitcher. This story is often cited as both a display of Rebekah's virtue and as an example of the Jewish value of kindness to animals.

Although modern civilization did not begin to enforce laws against cruelty to animals until the late 19th century, Jewish tradition has maintained the principle of kindness to animals from the beginning. The prohibition of cruelty to animals, tza'ar ba'alei chayim, shows up in many Jewish sources in addition to this parashah. For example, the Talmud, the code of Jewish Law, teaches that animals must be allowed to rest on Shabbat and that we must feed our animals before we feed ourselves. Plus, the laws of kashrut offer a guide for treating animals ethically.

Together with your children or students, you can explore tza'ar ba'alei chayim and come up with a list of ways in which you can put its teaching into practice. The most obvious place to begin is at home and in your community. Here are some ideas to get you started:

• Adopt a family pet. This gives children a chance to care for and be kind to a living creature.
• Consider exploring ways to help a friend or neighbor with their pet if you can't or don't wish to own a pet.
• Contact a local animal shelter and ask how you and your family can help.
• Engage with your local humane society and find out how you can get involved.

The story of Rebekah (in this parashah) not only offers characters the children can relate to (both people and animals), but also provides interesting imagery for dramatic retelling. Ask your child or your students to imagine the scene of Rebekah at the well and see where the story takes you!

Questions and Ideas for Parents:

1. What kinds of experiences did you have with pets as a child (either your pets or others)? Positive? Negative?

2. Children love stories about animals. Make up a story about an imaginary animal and tell it to your child. Or have your family tell a cooperative story about an imaginary animal; you can begin the story and then have each family member take a turn adding their idea to the story.

3. Plan a family outing to a local pet store. Ask your children to count the dogs, count the cats, count the big dogs, count the small dogs, etc.

Questions for Children:

1. If you could have any pet in the world, what would it be? How would you take care of it?

2. Do you have a favorite stuffed animal? What do you love about your stuffed animal?

3. Do you know what a camel looks like? Ask your parent to find a picture of camels in the desert and try to imagine what they looked like at Rebekah's well.

Reference Materials

Pages 154–163 in The Torah A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition by W. Gunther Plaut

Originally published: