Thursday, December 4, 2008
Are Human Beings Different From Animals?
In Tennessee, there is a charity called The Elephant Sanctuary. Elephants that are treated badly or are unwanted by circuses around the country may find themselves a home at the sanctuary. They have 2,700 acres of property to frolic on and they have people from all over the world pouring money into this charity to help out these elephants who have no where safe to live after "retiring" from the circus or whatever their previous owner was. You can see live video from the sanctuary and read profiles of each of the human-like named elephants currently residing there here.
I'm going to venture something harsh sounding here. Wouldn't it be a better use of society's resources if these elephants were painlessly put to sleep when they "retire"? Then all of these millions of dollars a year from all over the world could be directed to helping human beings! Think of what a difference such resources could be to those being killed in Darfur or for housing for the poor. I certainly wouldn't expect the general population of the world to help out Chabad in Mumbai or Partners in Torah. But people could at least use their resources to do something to really help human beings that are suffering, like KickStart.org's project to distribute human powered micro-irrigation pumps to small-time poor African farmers.
I think the root of the problem is not merely a matter of how people allocate their resources. I think it comes down to a basic confusion as to the difference between human beings and animals. It is honestly not clear to people that animals are any less worthy of help or support than other human beings are.
But why is it that there is such a confusion about the difference between what a human being is and what an animal is? I think it comes down to the fact that the secular world has begun to view the world in the mistaken way that Shlomo Hamelech summed up this way in Koheles 3:19: "כִּי מִקְרֶה בְנֵי-הָאָדָם וּמִקְרֶה הַבְּהֵמָה, וּמִקְרֶה אֶחָד לָהֶם--כְּמוֹת זֶה כֵּן מוֹת זֶה, וְרוּחַ אֶחָד לַכֹּל; וּמוֹתַר הָאָדָם מִן-הַבְּהֵמָה אָיִן, כִּי הַכֹּל הָבֶל." "That which happens to man happens to animals. There is one end to both. As is one, so is the other. Everything is of one spirit, and any advantage of man over animals is nil because everything is vanity."
At the beginning of the sefer, Shlomo Hamelech clarifies man's superiority over animals is an illusion. In Koheles 1:3, he specifies, "מַה-יִּתְרוֹן, לָאָדָם: בְּכָל-עֲמָלוֹ--שֶׁיַּעֲמֹל, תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ," "What advantage is there to man with all of his toil under the sun!" The meforshim clarify that this means the vanity that Koheles refers to is man's labor under the sun, beneath and without the light of Torah. That is vanity. Therefore, we can also understand the type of vanity that Shlomo Hamelech is referring to in 3:19. He's teachings us that there is no real difference between man and animals in the world of "under the sun," in the case of physical life without the light of the Torah. However, with a life infused with Torah, when physical life is a dira b'tachtonim, a dwelling place for the Divine, then there is a universe of a difference between man and animals.
In today's day and age where humans are made more animal-like (think Darwinism and the determinism implied be genetic pre-dispositions), it is little wonder that animals are humanized, and the line between them is blurred. Rav Klonymous Kalmish Shapiro, the Piaczena Rebbe, wrote about a related topic in a piece in Mevo Hashearim that I referenced here. He pointed out there that people are able to believe in a lack of free will because of their confusion between animals and people. When people are merely glorified versions of animals in their eyes, there's no reason why we shouldn't think that we lack free will just as the animals lack free will.
People feel very good about themselves for seeing the "humanity" in animals. But what they are really doing by having this attitude is dehumanizing humans. When there is little difference between mankind and animals, very little is expected from human beings, since the expectations for ourselves as people are influenced by our perception that we are little more than animals. This can be very liberating for those who are sub-consciously looking for an escape from the responsibility of true, elevated humanity.
May we all merit to see the true value of humanity and our lofty potential for spirituality when we connect to the world of "above the sun"!
(Picture of Barbara [and other elephants like Sissy, Winkie and Tarra] courtesy of The Elephant Sanctuary)
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