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The Beauty of Being Human: Love of Animals: The Holy and the Unholy

“He (Rabbi Akiva) used to say: Beloved is the human being who was created in the Divine image; it is indicative of a greater love that it was made known to him that he was created in the Divine image, as it is said (Genesis 9:6): ‘For in the image of God He made the human being.’ ” 
(Pirkei Avos 3:18)

“Scripture records (Genesis 1:27) that ‘God created the human being in His image.’ The commentators take the statement to refer to His attributes. He gave the human soul the capacity to emulate the attributes of Hashem, the Blessed One - to do good and act with lovingkindness with others, as Scripture states: ‘Hashem is good to all, and His compassion is on all His works’ (Psalm 145:9), and ‘He gives food to all flesh, for His loving-kindness endures forever’ (Psalm 136:25). The existence of the entire world then depends on this virtue...Hence whoever follows in this path will bear the Divine image on his person; while whoever refrains from exercising this virtue and questions himself, ‘why should I do good to others?’ removes himself completely from Hashem, the Blessed One.” 
(“Loving Kindness” by the Chafetz Chaim, chapter 2)

Dear Friends, 
Each human being that is born into the world is beloved, for each human being is created in the Divine image. Every human being therefore has the capacity to emulate the Divine love and compassion. The Compassionate One did not only give us the gift of being in the Divine image; the Compassionate One made us aware of this gift through the Torah - the Divine Teaching. For without an awareness of the great spiritual potential within us, we could make the mistake of thinking that we are just another species of the animal world; thus, we could mistakenly conclude that our only purpose on this earth is to gratify our animal instincts. One does not have to be a sociologist to realize that many people in our modern society have come to this false conclusion. To our great sadness, they never learned how beautiful and holy it is to be a human being. They are therefore unaware of the great spiritual potential within themselves. And when human beings are unaware of their spiritual potential, they can sink below the level of animals. For example, an animal will kill in order to survive, while a human being is capable of killing purely for the sake of hatred.

My parents, of blessed memory, were the children of Jewish immigrants who came to America before World War 1. My parents did not have the benefit of a Torah education, but they, like most Jews of their generation, absorbed from their parents some traditional Jewish values, including the value of human dignity. This value was a motivating factor in my parents’ struggle against racism and anti-Semitism, and in their struggle to ensure that all human beings receive proper housing, food, and employment, as well as a good education. 

My parents also absorbed the traditional Jewish idea that human beings are placed on this earth in order to serve. They therefore could not stand people whose whole purpose in life was to gratify their animal instincts, not could they stand people who lived according to the selfish “law of the jungle” - where only the physically strong survive. For my parents, a selfish or cruel act was “inhuman”! And they would tell me and my sister over and over again, “Be a human being!” The greatest compliment they would say about someone was that he or she was a “mensch” - a true human being.

(In 2003, current to the writing of this letter, the radical animal rights group Peta displayed an exhibit entitled “Holocaust on Your Plate”.)

The individuals who designed the Peta exhibit which features pictures of Holocaust victims juxtaposed against pictures of chickens, cows, and pigs, have demonstrated a lack of sensitivity to human beings, whom they view as just another species of the animal world. They fail to understand why people do not wish to see pictures of the murdered members of their family placed next to the pictures of animals. These Peta leaders have, however, human intelligence. 

I therefore hope that they will use their intelligence and realize that the very compassion and concern that they feel for animals is in itself the greatest proof of the spiritual greatness of the human being. They also have human hearts, and I therefore hope that they will strive to become more sensitive to the feelings of human beings. It would also be helpful for them to realize that since human beings have an innate sense of dignity, the Holocaust victims experienced not only great physical pain, but also great emotional pain from the sadistic ways in which their German oppressors tried to humiliate them. Anyone familiar with the stories of Holocaust survivors knows that they suffered greatly by these attempts to rob them of any sense of worth or dignity.

Some of the leaders of Peta are Jewish; yet, they seem to be unaware that a major purpose of the Jewish people is to remind all the peoples that human beings are created in the Divine image. They also seem to be unaware that the reason the Torah gives importance to the human being is because the human being is to serve as the loving caretaker of all life. For the Torah teaches that the human being was placed on this earth “l’avdah u’l’shamrah” - to serve it and to protect it (Genesis 2:15). 

The idea that the human being has a central and universal role within the creation is expressed in an ancient story about Abraham, our father, which is found in the Midrash - a collection of stories and parables which reveal the deeper meaning of the Torah. The Midrash describes a dialogue between Abraham and his ancestor, Shem, the son of Noah - who was also known as “Malki-Tzedek”:

Malki -Tzedek and his family were in the ark during the great flood, and Abraham asked Malki-Tzedek: “By what merit were you able to leave the ark and begin a new life?”
Malki-Tzedek responded: “Through the merit of acts of tzedakah (helping the needy) that we performed in the ark.”
Abraham then asked” “To whom did you give tzedakah? There were no poor people in the ark; there was only you and your family.”
Malki-Tzedek replied: “All night, we were busy feeding the livestock, wild creatures, and birds; in fact, we were too busy to sleep!”
Abraham said to himself: “If they were able to leave the ark because of the tzedakah which they gave to livestock, wild creatures, and birds, then how much more would I accomplish if I performed acts of tzedakah for human beings who are created in the Divine image!” He then opened an inn for needy travelers (Genesis 21:33), and he provided them with food, drink, and escort. (Yalkut Shimoni on Psalm 37)

Abraham realized that the greatest service he could do for all the earth’s creatures is to nurture and strengthen human beings. For he understood that the ability to have compassion for all life is the human being’s greatest gift - a reminder of the Divine spirit within. 

As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote:
“Compassion is the feeling of empathy which the pain of one being of itself awakens in another; and the higher and more human the beings are, the more keenly attuned are they to re-echo the note of suffering, which - like a voice from heaven - penetrates the heart, bringing to all creatures a proof of their kinship in the universal God. And as for the human being, whose function it is to show respect and love for God’s universe and all its creatures, his heart has been created so tender that it feels with the whole organic world.” (Horeb 17).

According to Kabbalah - the hidden wisdom of Torah - the human being is a microcosm of the whole organic world. The Vilna Gaon, a leading sage of the 18th century, finds this idea expressed in the following verse:
“And God said: ‘Let us make the human being in our image and after our likeness.’ “ (Genesis 1:26)

Who was the Creator speaking to when He said, “Let ‘us’ make the human being”?  The Vilna Gaon teaches that the Creator was addressing all of creation, bidding each to contribute a portion of its characteristics to the human being. For example, the human being’s inner strength is traced to the lion, his swiftness to the eagle, his cunning to the fox, his capacity for growth to the flora - all of which are harmonized within the human being. Since the human being reflects the unity of the Divine creation, he has the unique ability to identify with all aspects of creation. Thus, it was the human being who was chosen to be the steward over the Divine estate - to serve it and protect it.“