This morning I tried to save him. When he paused on the window, I pulled over to the curb. I grabbed my tools: a piece of paper for him to walk on and a cup for him to jump into.
But the piece of paper brushed his fragile body and crushed him by accident.
So delicate, so frail, so vulnerable, he must have been so hungry.
“Ribbono Shel Olam,” I whispered, “you know I tried to save one of your creatures because I know that even the littlest embodied spark is still a spark, but I failed and I accidentally killed him. Please carry his soul safely.”
An inner voice replied: “But you’re not completely consistent. You eat meat sometimes.”
My animal activism credentials are excellent and getting better. I work really hard at my animal commitments. No one can take that away from me. Not even my most accusing inner critic.
For the first time, I really grasped the insanity of this inner voice.
Hasidic tradition calls it the yetzer hara, the evil formation within us. No matter how hard I try to improve morally and spiritually, this voice tells me that I am not good enough to succeed.
The psychologist Sandra Maitri calls it a leftover “superego voice.” Sure, this voice helped create boundaries for my adolescent self. When I first stepped out into the world, believing I knew and could do anything, this voice grounded me. But now, decades later, my life has been constructed within cautious internal boundaries. A voice pressing me to narrow the boundaries of effective action even further is not a helpful voice.
To atone for my role in the death of this tiny creature, I pray and continue the good work of helping arachnids as best I can. No one can take these acts away from me, not even my most accusing inner critic.
I remember how I learned to pray for the soul of an animal.
One Sunday morning many years ago, before my ordination as a rabbi, and before my immersion in “Animal Torah,” I was a guest preacher at a liberal Christian church. I took a risk and spoke about spiritual topic new to me: the kinship of all life. I shared the prayer-poem Nishmat Kol Chai, “the soul of every living thing shall bless your name.” Then I retold a short story I had read about a man who runs over a cat and wonders if his own cat has the authority to forgive him. He asks: how do we deal ritually with such grief when our religious tradition is so human-focused?
During the discussion, an older woman wearing a priestess-style cloak stood up to speak. “There are things you can do,” she said, “You can pray to raise up the soul of the animal.”
Perhaps she was just nervous, but it seemed to me she spoke scornfully. Perhaps I was just insecure, but I received a scolding subtext: This is so elementary, I can’t believe you didn’t say it yourself. How dare you speak about this topic when I know so much more about it than you?
Despite the sting of her tone, I always weave the prayer she suggested in with my own heart-themes.
For a long time, I’ve known that judgmental people judge themselves harshly. Their inner sound tracks play certain themes of self-criticism, and these themes become raw material for social conversation.
Perhaps the woman at church had nervously told herself many times, “You can’t give a speech about something if anyone out there knows more than you. What if they ask a question you can’t answer?”
This inner admonition expresses so much yearning. A yearning to be perfect, a yearning to please all possible critics, a yearning to meet an impossible standard.
I know this voice of yearning so well.
Years ago, unfortunately, I was formally taught how to wield it against others. And it has come back to haunt me.
In philosophy school, we learned to ask the question, “Are you completely consistent in your thinking? Does your theory account for every possible exception? What about these counterexamples? Go back to the drawing board, fix your theory, then we’ll talk!”
That’s what my crazy voice said this morning: “Do you really dare to pray for the soul of an animal when you ate a piece of salmon yesterday? Do you dare to pray before you have perfected yourself?”
For once, I had the courage to answer, “Yes, I dare!”