Of humans and animals
One of the most meaningful things we can do on Rosh HaShanah is to review what we are trying to achieve with our lives and whether we have met our goals in the past year. Perhaps we should also review those aims and perform a reality check. If we don’t do this on Rosh HaShanah, I think it’s safe to say that we will probably never will. There are many ways of achieving this, but my suggestion for this year is to consider the following. It is clear that before the great flood, Man was intended to be vegetarian - he was not allowed to kill animals for food until afterwards. It seems that human nature was somewhat different before the deluge; perhaps more passive and contemplative than today. Actually, it was the act of killing animals that was prohibited – there are sources that suggest that Adam was allowed to eat carrion. Only after the flood were Noah and his family permitted to slaughter animals for food. The Torah strongly contrasts its authorisation to kill animals with the prohibition of killing people, which remains strictly forbidden. Man must not make the mistake of cheapening human life, although he may kill animals. This is a rather interesting point, as these days, it is not uncommon for people to equate the value of animals and humans. A while ago, I heard a radio broadcast in which a Californian academic with quite impressive credentials noted that as monkeys have over 90% of the genes of humans, they should be accorded rights in the same proportion. By this he meant 90% of the healthcare facilities, social services etc. We may assume that in response, our simian friends will have to bear 90% of the responsibility of humans – i.e. taxation and service in the armed. Presumably, in the future, we can expect to share hospitals wards, army barracks and dole queues with monkeys. Criminal monkeys will serve 90% of the prison sentences of their human counterparts and will be required to attend 90% of their quota of schooling. It may also means that a human who steals a banana from a monkey will be condemned to 90% of the consequences of robbing a fellow human. An old joke comes to mind – a monkey that has escaped from its cage is eventually found in a library holding a Bible in one hand and Darwin’s ‘The Origin of Species’ in the other. When questioned about its behaviour it responds, ‘I am wondering if I am my brother’s keeper or my keeper’s brother.’ A thought occurred to me on this theme – since bananas share some genes with humans, would it not be logical to accord them say 30% of the rights of people? Where is the line? Some people might even prefer sharing a prison cell with a banana than a monkey, although I think we can assume that the monkey would prefer to share with the banana! I recall a conversation a number of years ago with a prominent academic who asked me if I would eat a monkey, were it kosher. I answered in the affirmative. (I don’t know if monkeys taste good, and many Hollywood adventure films feature the apocryphal monkey-brain feast, but that wasn’t the point). He said that the higher functions of monkeys are so sophisticated that it seems morally wrong to eat them. They are just too human. When challenged about chicken and fish, which he seemed comfortable eating, even though they express certain humanoid faculties (such as thought and pain), he acknowledged that drawing the line can be very difficult. The Torah is unequivocal about this – the line is drawn between humans and animals. Of course, we are obliged to respect animals and be sensitive to their needs and pain, but there is a dimensional gulf between us and them. It lies in something I mentioned above – the notion of responsibility. What divides us from the animals (and thereby makes us human) is that unlike them, we can be altruistic, focus on the needs of others and if, necessary, delay our need for immediate gratification to achieve higher goals. Animals live deterministic lives; they feed, reproduce, run from danger and migrate in instinctively. We, in contrast, have the freedom of choice that allows every moment and experience to be invested with meaning. Monkeys may share 90% or more of our genes, but they share none of our potential and or capacity to change ourselves and our world. In this regard, there is no distinction between a monkey and the banana he eats. The only cogent place to draw a line is between the free-choosing and the deterministic; between we humans and everything else in God’s creation. This notion helps us to formulate our life-goals at Rosh HaShanah. What makes us truly human is our capacity to live life in the presence of God, constantly aware that every action counts, that each thought and feeling is significant and can, quite literally, change the world. Regrettably, during the year we often lose this sensitivity, forgetting that we can dedicate ourselves to lives of altruism, focused on the needs of other human beings, tuned in to higher, spiritual concerns. Instead of a life in the spiritual fast lane, in which we transform ourselves and our world, we may favour the lazy and banal, relegating personal growth and the elevation of every experience to the bottom of our agenda. Rosh HaShanah is the birthday of the world; as such it the annual chance to ensure that we are living up to God’s expectations for us and His creation. Do we deemphasise our needs in preference to those of God? Do we grab every opportunity to set aside our own desires to bring happiness other human beings? Does our behaviour in private reflect the same high standards as those we exhibit in public? These things define who we are; they not only distinguish us from the animals, but validate God’s decision to create the world in the first place. This is the theme of Rosh HaShanah – reawakening the God awareness in all of us that so fundamentally expresses the purpose of creation. So on Rosh HaShanah we crown God, paying homage to His majesty and limitless might through our renewed commitment to implementing His will with every act. Let us celebrate our true human potential on Rosh HaShanah; may this be a year in which we take full advantage of every precious moment that God grants us. A version of this article first appeared on Jewish World Review.