Once upon a time
Eden and Rebecca ran up the hill, with their puppy Spotty. They were heading home after a visit to the park.
“Boiling hot today!” panted Eden.
“Yes, we really should have brought water bottles.” answered Rebecca.
“Water bottles and lunches” moaned Eden. “I’m also starving.”
Rebecca turned to their puppy “I’m sure that Spotty also can’t wait to be fed.” She reached down to give him a pat.
When they returned home, Rebecca began to fill Spotty’s dish and bowl with food and water.
Eden shook her head. “It’s generous of you to want to feed Spotty before yourself, but I think it’s the wrong decision. Our lives take precedence over his.”
Rebecca wasn’t sure what to do.
Q: Who is right, and what does our story have to do with the parasha?
A: This is a bit of a ‘trick question’ because the answer is different for water versus food:
In our parasha, after Moshe draws water from the rock, the pasuk states:
וַתֵּשְׁתְּ הָעֵדָה וּבְעִירָם
“The people and their animals drank” (Bamidbar 20:11). The people drank before their animals, and this is the halacha (Rabbeinu Chaim Ben Atar). Can you think of another example in the Torah where a person was given water before his animals? In sefer Bereishis Rivka first brought water to Eliezer and then to his camels. In our story the girls can drink water before Spotty.
In the case of eating food, the Torah teaches the opposite order. At least twice a day we recite the words:
וְנָתַתִּי עֵשֶׂב בְּשָׂדְךָ לִבְהֶמְתֶּךָ, וְאָכַלְתָּ וְשָׂבַעְתָּ
“And I will give grass in your fields for your cattle, and you will eat and you will be satisfied.” (Keriyas Shema)
The order in this pasuk puts animals before people. We learn that animals should be fed before their owner eats (Mishna Berura 167:40).
Q: Why would the halacha give a different rule for drinking and eating?
A: Two reasons are given by Rabbi Tzvi Pesach Frank, a former chief rabbi of Jerusalem (Har Tzvi, Orach Hachaim 90): Being thirsty is much more difficult than being hungry, and therefore a person does not have to delay drinking before he gives his animal water. The second reason is that if the owner is allowed to eat first, then they may begin their meal and forget to feed the animal! Note that if the owner only plans on eating a quick snack, then the Shulchan Aruch Harav allows them to eat first (167:9).
Back to Our Story
Spotty quickly ate the food that Rebecca had given him and then lifted his head out of his bowl. There on the kitchen table was a tasty looking meat dish that Eden had taken out of the refrigerator. But the girls weren’t eating it! They were searching through various sefarim and saying words like ‘halacha’.
Spotty thought to himself “Well, if they’re not going to eat that yummy food then I certainly will. I’m always makpid about b’aal taschis!”
(Written by Josh and Tammy Kruger in collaboration with Rabbi Yehoshua Pfeffer of the Institute for Dayanim, and based on the following article by Rabbi Moishe Dovid Lebovits: http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/halacha/Volume_6_Issue_2.pdf)