This week we conclude the yearly cycle of the Torah and begin it anew. In many ways this first of the five books serves as the foundation for the entire Torah. One encounters seemingly simple “stories,” which from a pure literary point of view are some of the best in the world. At the same time, it contains very deep and essential material that address all basic problems of humanity and our existence– problems of marriage, sibling rivalry, murder, growth and development, and the tragic fall through sin. If one had to pinpoint the main theme and lesson of Bereisit- the beginning- it would be what it means to be human.
This theme begins much earlier than we may think; it begins with the account of creation. Only after discussing the formation of the universe and all the myriads of life forms, do we arrive at the creation of the human being. The premise of the Talmud (Sanhedrin 38a) is that every statement of the Torah is precise and meaningful, and the order of creation is no exception. The Talmud presents a few different opinions and explanations for why man comes last. We will look at two of these explanations to arrive at the defining features that set us apart from animals- and all of creation.
The first explanation relates that human beings were the last step in the process of creation to send an important message: “If man’s mind becomes too arrogant he will be reminded that even the gnat was created before him.” This explanation takes the approach that man was created last in order to humble him, lest he become too proud. After all, G-d first turned His attention to creating the animals. And not just any animal- but even an insect. And not just any insect, but a gnat, which sucks in blood but does not excrete anything that is useful to others. The gnat is the paradigm of any parasite, a being that lives at the expense of others, is entirely self centered, and gives no sustenance of any kind to anything but itself. Coming last in creation is, therefore, the ultimate insult.
The other explanation takes a different approach to the order of creation: Man came last “so that man may go into “the banquet” immediately. This is analogous to a King of flesh and blood who built a palace, decorated it, prepared a banquet and [only] after [everything was ready] brought in the honored guests.” Coming last in creation is thus the ultimate compliment.
So we seem to have two contradictory reasons for creating man last. The first conveys a negative message, or at least a humbling one. It says that man was placed behind even the lowest of creatures. The second relates an opposite message. It argues that the entire order of creation, with all of its intricate details, was specifically prepared for man’s benefit. The message of the Torah is either “G-d saved the best for last” or “you’re in last place.” But how can they both be true?
At first glance, the first of these explanations appears to be surprising. If one examines the straightforward words in the Torah’s account of creation it clearly seems to be communicating and stressing the advantage of man over animals: “And God created mankind in His image; in the image of God He created it; male and female He created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and rule over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the sky and over all the beasts that tread upon the earth.” While there are clear expectations concerning the proper treatment of animals, the Torah approves of the use of animals for food, clothing, and labor. Furthermore, Jewish law clearly values human life over that of animals.
In light of the above, what then is the intention of the first explanation; is it false but well-intended hyperbole meant to inspire man to greater humility? Or is it in some way literally true? Should one realistically entertain the idea that G-d values a gnat more than a human being? Furthermore, how will being reminded of the order of creation serve to humble a person, when in light of the second view, one can always come to the opposite conclusion – perhaps humans came last because G-d “saved the best for last.” We are forced to say that there must be more to the first statement than simply remembering the order of creation.
To resolve this issue, we must pause briefly to discuss what the main differences between a person and an animal are, according to the Torah. To be sure, pinpointing the main distinction and superiority of man over animal has been the subject of much discussion and debate in a variety of academic fields. Indeed entire books have been written on the subject. Abstract reasoning and application, language and sophisticated communication, an inherent spiritual and religious nature, morality, aesthetics, creativity, imagination, humor, conscious of time, self awareness, even money and trade are just some of the notable characteristics that distinguish a human being from an animal.
But we will now look to our topic at hand—the account of Creation in the Chumash and the commentaries— to determine whether there is a single, essential feature separating human beings from animals: Based on the wording of the verses, the Ramban (Nachmonides) points out something completely different that took place with the creation of man— a creature was designed that comprised a physical body, and at the same time possessed an inherent spiritual facet that was not part of the physical world. Humans were given an additional gift, a unique soul that sets us apart from all other creatures. The function of this soul is not simply to enliven the body, but is a feature inherently bound to the spiritual realm. This is a more qualitative difference between human beings and animals. Possessing both a lofty soul and a body is a categorical distinction that sets us apart from everything in the physical- and spiritual- universe.
The Sforno, one of the classic commentaries, identifies another distinction that is central to Jewish philosophy and mysticism alike. Unlike any other physical or spiritual being, we have free choice. The capacity for free choice is a tremendous gift and distinction for man. Maimonides likewise writes “The species of man became singular in the world with no other species resembling it in the following quality: that he can, on his own initiative, with his knowledge and thought know good and evil and do what he desires…”
These commentaries relate the central distinction of man: 1) an earthy creature with the existence of a unique soul and 2) the capacity for free choice. But it is this latter distinction that also leads to a notable deficiency: While free choice is indeed a gift, what one can do with our power of free choice is not always a positive distinction. Everything created has a specific function and purpose. Since an animal does not possess free choice, it also cannot act in a manner that violates its ultimate purpose, even when doing something destructive. An animal has no moral sense of purpose. The concept of good and evil, and capacity for self-restraint, does not exist. Even a vicious tiger that suddenly “decides” to attack is not “evil.” It just follows its instincts, acting according to its predetermined design, and thus cannot be blamed.
Accordingly, by following its instinct, an animal never negates its purpose in creation. On the contrary, acting like an animal is exactly what it is designed to do. Simply by virtue of carrying out its task, with every roar or croak, the existence of an animal fulfills the will of G-d. A human being, on the other hand, “can do what he desires”, but what we desire is not always in accordance with one’s ultimate purpose. Possessing such an inherent deficiency in his makeup, a person stands out among creation in a negative sense.
With this in mind let’s revisit the first statement in the Talmud. The simple meaning of the statement is: “You have no cause for pride because even the lowly gnat was created before you!” But the deeper meaning is that the gnat was not only created ahead of us chronologically, but can be ahead of us in the estimation of G-d.
On the one hand, a human being is created with a lofty soul that sets him apart from all other creatures. On the other hand, a person is the only creature that can sin and in effect do the opposite of what he was created to do. A human being is unique not only in possessing two features—that of heaven and earth— but in comprising two opposite inclinations and abilities: the highest and the lowest. And what determines which of these extremes will stand out as the defining feature of the individual? It is the effort that one makes. The essential power of free choice is given as the tool to move from one extreme to the other, to progress toward the tangible realization of both our positive and negative potentials.
Returning to resolve the two opinions in the Talmud, we can perhaps say that both opinions in the Talmud agree. They both acknowledge that man possesses a likeness to G-d. And both agree that man must use his free choice to do good. They diverge, however, in how they measure greatness: If the main focus is on ones essential, inbred characteristics—what one is—then likeness to G-d stands out as the significant distinction from the moment of our creation as a species and our birth as individuals. And logically, coming last in the order of creation reflects this positive distinction- “So that man may go into the banquet immediately.”
But if a human being’s main superiority is defined by that which he achieves through his own effort— measured by what one does— then there is always the chance that man will not reach the purpose for his being. So what is most significant in comparison to the rest of creation is the potential to sin. At this point, he is inferior even to a gnat being the only creation with the ability and inclination to do evil — and so the message of being created last is a reminder that “even the gnat was created before him.”[But within this message is also positive reminder; precisely because of our inherent deficiency, because we begin from such a low starting point and possess the inclination to stray, we can reach the greatest heights of achievement if we choose to do so.
Thus, while we contain within our makeup a distinct disadvantage over other beings, this disadvantage also makes possible the distinct advantage and superiority.
So the message is not to simply focus only on the negative, as we may have thought, to humble a person by reminding him that he can be lower. Rather, because of this inherent low point, the Gemara reminds us that we are capable of an even greater distinction— a spirituality that is earned.
We have analyzed two opinions in the Gemara—one focused more on man’s essential features—the gift of the soul and the power of free choice. The other focused more on our personal contribution in achieving our goals. The result was two different reasons for being created last. Though the opinions differ in emphasis, both perspectives are true and have a personal message. In order for one to succeed in life we must bear in mind both messages.
Some people are extraordinarily “gifted.” Such a person may look around and see that he or she is appreciated, has special qualities. But in doing so he runs the risk of becoming too proud. In such a case we are reminded: “A gnat came before you.” Our real distinction is our character development, our moral decisions, and what we acquire through effort, not our inborn talents or qualities. Likewise, one must constantly be reminded that a human being, however successful, still possesses a deficiency, the potential to sin.( This applies to evaluating oneself but with regard to a relationship with others, one must search to discover the full nature of a person- the inner spiritual resources one has as a gift) When a person understands this he will we not take anything for granted, he will humbly turn his attention to developing his character, and he will apply all of his inner resources properly.
Other times we may look at our achievements or the achievements of others and see a significant lack of results, or many negative choices, mistakes, etc. and run the risk of becoming despondent, saying: “I’ve wasted my life.” At this point we are reminded that while in one respect we may have failed, we must look at the more complete picture of what we have inside: our enormous potential, our innate qualities and gifts. We must know that even with all the mistakes and sins the higher part of the person remains, still waiting to be brought out in the open.
In summary, two main features define our superiority over the rest of creation. One is an innate gift. The other comes later as a result of our effort. At the same time we possesses a significant deficiency. The distinct virtue of a person is that we begin with this severe deficiency and through free choice can reach such a high level, uncovering the hidden gifts that lie inside us all.