In the Middle Ages, the Black Death swept through Asia and Europe, killing some 25 million people. It was perhaps the most virulent pandemic of bubonic plague in history.
The disease was spread by rats and their fleas. You don’t need more than that to know why rats — perhaps second to snakes — have been the most loathsome creature known to humankind.
But there’s more.
The Braisa in Chullin (127b) says, “Every species on land has a corresponding species at sea, except for a rat.” The rat was excluded because all sea creatures are tahor. And the rat is the only creature that is totally tamei (Toras Kohanim, Shemini).
The Gemara in Eruvin (100b) teaches us, “Even if we had not been given the Torah, we would be able to learn modesty from the cat and learn not to steal from the ant.”
Rashi explains that the cat shows modesty in personal matters. And that ants store up food in the summer for the winter, but they don’t steal food from one another.
But the Gemara doesn’t list any good traits to learn from the rat.
Nobody ever thought of calling the rat “man’s best friend.”
Not until now, anyway.
Meet the Hero Rats: intelligent, and what has shockingly been described as “adorable” creatures with some of the most sensitive noses in the animal kingdom. African giant-pouched rats are being used to clear minefields in Mozambique and Angola, and this month they began doing the same in Cambodia.
Up to six million mines or pieces of unexploded munitions have been left by decades of wars. About 67,000 people in Cambodia have been killed or injured since 1979, and with more than 25,000 amputees, Cambodia has highest ratio of mine amputees per capita in the world.
Until now, humans or machines or dogs were used to find and remove old land mines. But none of those have the keen nose of a rat to detect TNT. And rats are light enough to avoid triggering a mine. They also work for lower salaries than humans.
Villagers who abandoned rice fields because they were too dangerous have been able to return.
“The villagers have started to get excited about farming their land again. You can see the light in their faces,” says Paul McCarthy, Cambodia program manager for the Belgian nonprofit organization APOPO, or Anti-Personnel Land Mines Detection Product.
Unlike dogs, rats have another advantage in that they aren’t so emotional. They don’t become attached to their handlers. So they can be transported easily from place to place and just go right to work.
Surely there is a lesson in all of this. The Chofetz Chaim said about the invention of the telephone that, as our faith weakens, Hashem sends concrete examples to learn from. The phone teaches us to experience the idea of saying something in one place and having it heard far, far away.
But why rats? And what are we supposed to learn?
There is an enigmatic Gemara in Sanhedrin (17a). Chazal say that any talmid chacham who is not able to be metaher a sheretz (to permit a rodent) is not qualified to serve on the Sanhedrin.
Tosafos puzzles over this. How could it possibly be required for a member of Sanhedrin to permit something that is patently forbidden? Chazal don’t indulge in mystical paradoxes and conundrums — especially in such a crucial area as the qualification of a member of the Sanhedrin.
The Maharsha explains that it is precisely this paradoxical requirement that defines the quality of a member of the Sanhedrin. There is absolutely no way that we can say a rodent is permissible. It is the paradigm of prohibition. But this teaches us that sometimes the Sanhedrin must judge someone and it is absolutely clear that the person is guilty — it is as obvious as a rodent being forbidden that this person is evil. But if a judge cannot find even a single redeeming factor in this scoundrel… that judge is not fitting to serve on the Sanhedrin.
In order to judge Klal Yisrael, you have to be able to find a redeeming factor in even the worst wrongdoer.
Who knows? Maybe the hero rats have come now at a time when too many of us are too sure that those who disagree with us are absolutely evil scoundrels with no saving graces.
Maybe, maybe, maybe… it’s time for us to learn that even a rat has its tale.