It has begun. For millennia, man has sought to equate himself to the animals. From the early animists, who believed that “there is no barrier between humans and other beings” (Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, Harper Collins, 2015, page 54) to Darwin and his motley crew of followers, mankind has found it comforting to be just another creature. Yet, recently, this philosophy has finally taken an ominous new turn. The New York Times (May 28, 2015) reported that Barbara Jaffe, a New York State judge, heard arguments “on whether chimpanzees can be considered persons with legal rights.” Advocates “asserted that they were autonomous beings” and “compared their plight to human slaves.” Steven M. Wise of the “Nonhuman Rights Project” told the court that “imprisoning a chimp is at least as bad as and maybe worse than imprisoning a person.”
The societal ramifications of granting this “bodily liberty” to animals are staggering. As Christopher Coulston, an attorney representing Stony Brook University, the offending institution, notes, a decision on behalf of the animals would “absolutely open a floodgate.” There are strong possibilities that all medical research involving animals would have to cease and people could no longer own pets. There would be a multitude of other ramifications. The Torah has always been protective of animals and forbids inflicting pain upon them. The prohibition of tzaar baalei chaim is well-established in Jewish law (see Bava Metzia 32-33), we may not eat until we have fed our animals (Brachos 40a), and we are enjoined to learn from their good qualities (Eruvin 100b and Sefer Chassidim 47).
However, the Torah teaches us that man is inherently superior to the beasts (Derech Hashem 1:5:1) and they were all created to serve human beings (Shabbos 77b, Kiddushin 82b, and beginning of Tanna Devei Eliyahu). The Torah (Bereishis 98:2) expresses very early on that, originally, every animal was created to fear and be in awe of all human beings. Nevertheless, this lasted only as long as mankind maintained its own fear of G-d. As soon as man no longer exhibited morah Shomayim, proper fear of Heaven, the animal world instinctively “no longer perceived the tzelem Elokim upon man” (Sheim MiShmuel, Shelach 5673).
Actually, Shlomo Hamelech anticipated all this long ago. He warned us that there would come a time when it would indeed be difficult to distinguish man from beast: “For the fate of men and the fate of beast – they have one and the same fate. As one dies, so dies the other, and they all have the same spirit. Umosar ha’adam min habeheimah ayin ki hakol hovel – Man has no superiority over beast, for all is futile” (Koheles 3:19). These last words should sound familiar, for they are recited during Ne’ilah (see Seder Rav Amram Gaon, who records this text for both Ne’ilah and the daily Birchos Hashachar). Shlomo Hamelech is alerting us here that there will come a time when mankind will be in danger of equating man and beast. We may even be inclined to accept this pernicious equation at the culmination of the holiest day of the year.
What is the answer to this lashon hara on mankind? The answer, says the Chidah, is in the world ayin. The Hebrew letters stand for the words amirah, yediah and neshamah. We, human beings, have an elaborate language that no animal has been granted, knowledge that no animal will ever attain, and, unlike animals which only have a nefesh, a soul that functions on only the most basic of physical levels, we have a neshamah, a holy celestial soul that is a cheilek Eloka mimaal, a part of Hashem Himself” (see Maharsha, Brachos 30b). A simpler version of this formula teaches that ayin stands for “aval yeish neshamah – true, but we have a soul” (Chochmas Koheles, 3:260).
The Maharal (Tiferes Yisroel, chapter 52) quotes a Medrash on Koheles which indicates that man’s greatness can be discerned even in the area where he seems most like an ordinary mammal. Shlomo Hamelech noted that in death, man resembles the beast that dies and is put into the ground. However, the Medrash quotes two Amora’im, one who points to our formal burial proceedings and one to the tachrichim – shrouds – in which man is buried. The Maharal explains that our burial rituals are proof that man is not finished when his body ceases to function. He will yet arise at techias hameisim, the resurrection. In the Maharal’s words, “If all is over, lama lo hakevurah – why bother?” Clearly, Shlomo Hamelech is nudging us toward the eternal truth that for man, after death, the afterlife is just beginning, whereas for an animal, it is indeed all over at that point.
Interestingly, a teshuvah by a Chassidic rebbe (Tzemach Tzedek, Even Ha’ezer 269) suggests that man’s unique greatness, compared with the animals, is his ability to be modest. It is the middah of ayin that he defines from several sources (Tehillim 39:6, Yeshayah 41:12) as “azoi vi nisht – being as if one is nothing.” This is, of course, the tremendous avodah of anavah, working on ourselves to be humble.
The Abarbanel (Bereishis 2:20) sees this as the meaning of the posuk that states that Adam could not find a mate amongst the animals, so Hashem had to fashion Chava from his side. “Man and animal are, after all, not identical,” he notes, and “therefore, man had to find a help-mate outside the animal world.” This concept becomes more understandable when we study all the mussar teachings about marriage. They demonstrate in great detail how husband and wife can help each other grow in middos and spiritual stature, something no animal could possibly appreciate.
The Ramchal (Adir Bamarom, pages 11-12) solves another enigma for us concerning animals. We are all aware of some extraordinary creatures. Rav Pinchos ben Yair had a donkey that would not commit a sin, and every once in a while we hear stories of animals that seem to have voluntarily endangered or even sacrificed their lives for humans. What could be the source of such heroism? The Ramchal reveals to us that “the animals at their original creation were on the levels of human beings today. Every once in a while, there is a remnant of those lofty creatures, such as Rav Pinchos ben Yair’s donkey.” This might explain some of the truly amazing stories we read and hear about, where animals act in a manner that is almost human. According to the Ramchal, these animals have simply retained some of the qualities that Hashem embedded into the universe over five thousand years ago.
With this insight of the Ramchal, we might be able to understand the stories in Chazal where animals were rewarded, some eternally for the entire species. The Medrash (Bereishis Rabbah 22:18) teaches that since the birds buried Hevel, we cover their blood. Furthermore, since the frogs jumped into the ovens to fulfill the will of Hashem, they were spared from death in that plague. Many other anecdotes are told of animals that created a great kiddush Hashem (see Otzar Hayedios 1:459). All these unusual phenomena can be understood in light of the Ramchal’s teaching that the animals were originally – and some retained the quality – on a much higher level than their descendents that we generally see today.
We may conclude that although there are certainly wonderful lessons to learn from the animal world, man must be careful never to equate himself with them. We are all created betzelem Elokim, in His image, something foreign to any other creation. The animals have been created for us, including helping us discover cures for human diseases. This is their tikkun, the fulfillment of their purpose, though we must still be careful to minimize their suffering. Yet, we can all follow the teachings of Rabbeinu Bachya (Chovos Halevavos, introduction to Shaar Habechinah) and the Rambam (Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah, chapter 2) that contemplating the wonders of Hashem’s creation will ultimately cause us to love and fear Him, making us better people capable of the grandeur of being an adam.