Sharing Torah Insights

Man vs. Animal

Posted on כ״ו בתשרי ה׳תש״ע (October 14, 2009) | in Bereishit | by

In its opening chapter, the Torah discusses the creation of the heavens, earth, animals, Man and finally Shabbat. In Chapter 2, the Torah takes a step back to describe the creation of man in more detail. In Bereishit 2:7 it says:

וַיִּיצֶר יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם, עָפָר מִן-הָאֲדָמָה, וַיִּפַּח בְּאַפָּיו, נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים; וַיְהִי הָאָדָם, לְנֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה

Then the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

Many of the commentators note that language at the end of the Pasuk (לְנֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה – a living soul) is the same as the language used to describe the creation of all the other animals in Chapter 1. In Bereishit 1:24 it says:

וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, תּוֹצֵא הָאָרֶץ נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה לְמִינָהּ, בְּהֵמָה וָרֶמֶשׂ וְחַיְתוֹ-אֶרֶץ, לְמִינָהּ; וַיְהִי-כֵן

And God said: ‘Let the earth bring forth the living creature after its kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after its kind.’ And it was so.

The similar words used to describe both man’s and animal’s creations suggests that Hashem breathed a soul into Man but that the soul did not distinguish Man from his animal counterparts.  This requires us to ask what is it that then makes humans different than all other living creatures?  If it is not the original soul of our creation, what sets us apart from animals?  What gives us the right to eat their meat and use them for our livelihood?

Many commentators grapple with these questions.  Some, like Rashi and Onkelus, simply understand the verse differently, maintaining that the “living soul” breathed into us by God indeed is of a higher spiritual nature than animal’s despite the similar word usage.  They explain that the soul breathed into us by God gave us the superior powers of thought and speech that set us apart from the rest of the world.  Others, like the Chizkuni, do not treat the term נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה as a term defining our spiritual existence, but instead as a statement of our physical existence.  He explains that the similar words used to describe both the creation of Man and animal simply mean that Man was created as a fully formed adult and did not need to go through a maturation or growth process.

The Kli Yakar, Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntzchitz, offers a different explanation.  He takes the words of the verses literally and accepts the identical status of Man and animal at the point of creation.  The distinction between us and other living creatures takes place after creation, he says.  God gave us higher spiritual capacity in the form of our souls, but that higher spiritual capacity did not mean that we were automatically superior to animals.  Instead it meant that we have higher spiritual potential.  At the point of creation all living things were equal.  Man had done nothing and animal had done nothing.  The true spiritual completion of Man depends instead on “his effort and good choices.”  The first half of our original verse acknowledges the superior potential inherent to humanity, but the Torah uses the second half of the verse to drive home the message that our higher potential does not imply automatic superiority.  Instead, our superiority relies wholly on our actions and decisions to take advantage of the soul Hashem gave us.

The Ramchal in Messilat Yesharim Chapter 2 echoes this idea. He says:

For considering the fact that a man possesses the knowledge and the reasoning ability to save himself and to flee from the destruction of his soul, is it conceivable that he would willingly blind himself to his own salvation? There is certainly no degradation and foolishness worse than this. One who does this is lower than beasts and wild animals…

How can any person possibly become lower than beasts and wild animals if God created us as inherently superior creatures?  Obviously, the Ramchal is agreeing with the Kli Yakar’s understanding of our verse.  Humans and animals were created on equal planes, yet humans were imbued with more spiritual possibility.  If we fail to tap into our great spiritual possibilities and potential, we are indeed less worthy of life in God’s world than animals.  We have been blessed by Hashem with incredible potential. We have the power to speak, think and connect to Him in ways that no other creatures can access. But we must use these gifts correctly. Failing to do so can leave us lower than all the animals, but successfully reaching our potential allows us true attachment to the divine.

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