Long before the Chasidic movement began in the 18th century, the term "chasid" was used to describe someone who lovingly serves the Creator and all creation. In fact, Aharon, the Kohen, was described as a chasid (Deut. 33:8).The chassid serves with a higher consciousness known as "chasidus" - loving devotion. This loving devotion leads the chassid to do even more than what is required by Torah law. Our sages say that the tzadikim (righteous people) of old were also chasidim; moreover, even their animals developed the higher consciousness of chasidus (Avos D'Rabbi Noson 8:8). And the sages refer to the camels of Abraham, our father, as an example.
Before we can understand the chasidus of Abraham's camels, we first need to understand the chasidus of Abraham. It is well-known that Abraham helped many people in his generation to rediscover the One Creator of the universe. Through stressing the One Source of all creation, Abraham helped them to rediscover the unity of creation. Abraham therefore opposed the idolatry of his era, for he was aware that the deification of any fragment of creation - whether it be an aspect of nature, a human being, a nation, or humanity itself - can cause human beings to lose their consciousness of the unity and common origin of all creation. Rabbi Abraham Yaffen, a noted teacher of Jewish ethics in the early 20th century, elaborates on this idea in an essay that he wrote about our father, Abraham, and his love for humanity:
"It is precisely he (Abraham), who dedicated his life to acts of lovingkindness, who was also the great zealot who dedicated his life to the negation of idolatry in his generation. The reason for this can be understood: Idolatry is based on the assumption that the various forces within the world are separate one from the other; therefore, each human being is also considered to be separate from his neighbor. " (Mishel Avos - An anthology of Commentary on Pirkei Avos, p. 144)
Rabbi Yaffen adds that when Abraham would see the people of his generation fighting with each other, and how each would offer sacrifices to his own god in order to try to gain support in his struggle against his neighbor, Abraham would teach them that, on the contrary, "each should help his neighbor, for one God created them and desires the honor of all of them." Abraham therefore helped people to achieve a higher consciousness which made them aware of the unity of all creation.
In their own way, the animals under Abraham's care developed this higher consciousness. Our sages find a source for this tradition in the story of how Abraham's servant, Eliezer, traveled to Abraham's relatives in Charan, in order to bring back a wife for Abraham's son, Isaac. (To some degree, most of Abraham's relatives were still involved with idolatry.) When Eliezer arrived, Laban, a relative of Abraham, went to greet him, and he said to Eliezer:
"Come, O blessed of Hashem! Why should you stand outside when I have cleared the house and place for the camels?" (Genesis 24:31)
According to our tradition, the above words of Laban have a deeper meaning, and they are conveying the following message:
"Cleared the house" – I am aware that you are a disciple of Abraham who believes in the One Creator of the universe; thus, I have cleared the house of idols so you may feel free to enter. (Midrash Rabbah cited by Rashi)
"Place for the camels" – Abraham's camels would not enter a place containing idolatry, so Laban informed him that he also cleared the place for the camels from idolatry. (Avos D'Rabbi Nosson 8:8)
The camels of Abraham had achieved a higher consciousness that many people of that era had not yet achieved! Avos D'Rabbi Nosson then tells another story which took place in the Land of Israel at the end of the Second Temple period:
Once the donkey of Rabbi Chaninah ben Dosa was stolen. The robbers tied it up in a yard and left it straw, barley, and water, but it would not eat or drink. (The righteous donkey did not want to benefit from anything which did not rightfully belong to it.) The robbers said, "Why should we let it die and befoul our yard?" So they got up and opened the gate and let it out. The donkey walked along braying until it reached the home of Rabbi Chaninah ben Dosa. When it arrived, the rabbi's son heard its voice and said to his father, "That sounds like our animal." The rabbi said, "Open the door, my son, for it has nearly died of hunger." (The rabbi understood the higher nature of his donkey; thus, he realized that it had not eaten the food of the robbers.) Immediately, the lad opened the door and placed before it straw, barley, and water, which the donkey ate and drank (ibid).
Through the above stories, the sages are conveying to us the following message: The higher consciousness achieved by these animals should inspire us to develop our own unique spiritual potential as human beings who are created in the Divine image.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen
A Related Story:
The Talmud (Chullin 7b) tells the following story which took place in the Land of Israel: Rabbi Pinchas ben Ya'ir came to a certain inn. They placed barley before the donkey, but it would not eat. The barley was sifted, but it would not eat. The barley was carefully picked, but it would not eat. Rabbi Pinchas ben Ya'ir said to them: "Perhaps it had not been tithed?" They removed a tithe and it ate. Rabbi Pinchas ben Ya'r thereupon exclaimed: "This poor creature goes forth to do the will of its Creator, and you would feed it untithed produce?"
The above stories can be found in "The Vision of Eden" by Rabbi David Sears. The book is published by Orot: www.orot.com .