Last April, during the height of the pandemic, when even public gardens were closed, my balcony became my only refuge. I hung some string lights, planted flower seeds from expired packets I found in random cupboards (garden nurseries were also closed), and ordered a bird feeder from Amazon, which I suspended from a railing. I had such high hopes for that bird feeder.
I knew I could take a walk outside our West Los Angeles home, but whenever I tried, I felt compelled to practically run away from approaching passersby, even if they were masked. Walking in our neighborhood proved more stressful than relaxing, so I often sat on the balcony and yearned for any semblance of life and activity beyond the walls of my home. Strangely enough, I missed creatures, whom I associated with the outside world, and with the kind of freedom I and hundreds of millions of others were sorely lacking in order to stay healthy and safe.
One afternoon, after two weeks of being confined to home, I sat on the balcony and prayed for any sign of an animal. After a few minutes, my prayers were answered when a large house fly flew on the arm of my chair. Yes, in a pandemic, you take what you can get.
Soon, it was joined by another house fly. The two of them stood face to face, as if having a conversation. No masks, no social distancing, just good, old-fashioned face-to-face conversation. It was so relaxing to watch. And then, one fly mounted another and they began copulating right in front of me.
The moment was symbolic of the wholly underwhelming year many of us have experienced. Still, I felt grateful knowing that while human life was put on an unprecedented halt, creatures were still going about their business (literally).
Kabbalists teach that every living thing has a soul, but whereas animals only have a “nefesh habehamit” (a lower soul), humans have both a nefesh and a neshama, a higher soul that transcends the physical (Genesis 2:7). The neshama is essentially a divine spark that longs to connect with God.
Humans are meant to rise above the nefesh so that they’re not motivated by base desires such as hunger and survival. But if this pandemic has taught me anything, it’s that animals are intrinsically holy because, more than anything, they’re free.
But if this pandemic has taught me anything, it’s that animals are intrinsically holy because, more than anything, they’re free.
It’s true that animals act mostly based on desire—no squirrel has ever altruistically thought to save a few acorns for another squirrel that was injured—but, this year, I learned that creatures can rise above the physical simply by being themselves. In this way, a few of them (except some pets) understood that the world had come to a near standstill.
Pets, by the way, are an important animal component of this pandemic. Study how they’ve fared since last March and you’ll learn a lot about the state of their owners as well. If we think we’ve essentially lost a year-and-a-half of our lives, dogs, for example, have lost over ten years (one human year amounts to seven in dog years).
There’s another element of a creature’s holiness: whether we see it or not, Judaism teaches that creatures essentially praise God. This is particularly symbolic for birds, whose songs, whether they sound like sweet chirps or awful caws, are especially seen as praising their creator. As Psalm 148:7, 10 says, “Praise Hashem from the land, the sea monsters, and all the depths …The beasts and every animal, insect and winged bird.”
There’s another element of a creature’s holiness: whether we see it or not, Judaism teaches that creatures essentially praise God.
In fact, just as He did with humans, God made a covenant with animals. That’s one of the reasons we’re forbidden from tzar baalei chayim (causing a living creature pain). And that explains why I didn’t curse the squirrel that pulled my “sugar baby” mini watermelon plant right out of the pot and dragged away the small, succulent melons, no doubt enjoying them in a nearby tree. In truth, I was happy to have had a visitor that stopped by without anxiously asking whether I’m vaccinated (for the record, I am).
After four weeks of disappointingly watching an empty bird feeder (empty of birds, not seeds), a small bird visited our balcony. It was joined by a bigger one with a bright orange head and belly. And then, over a dozen others arrived. I researched their names and discovered that most of them were called common redpolls and lesser goldfinches. I’ll admit that I developed a slight inferiority complex after such research, wondering why fancier birds weren’t drawn to me.
Today, I can’t keep the birds off of my balcony. In fact, they’re eating me right out of house and home (and seed). They fight nonstop, pecking at each other with their beaks for the last morsel in the bird feeder, chasing one another, and chirping to their heart’s content. They live above the world of a lonely and dangerous pandemic. One day, I hope to do the same.
Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer, speaker and civic action activist. Follow her on Twitter @RefaelTabby