Monday, March 9, 2015

Jewish Thought: Man (Part I) - The Pinnacle of Creation

Rav Leibowitz

Jewish sages enumerate four primary groups of physical “beings” that exist in our world:
  1. Inanimate Creations (דומם) - lifeless creations, such as rocks and minerals.
  2. Vegetative Creations (צומח) - plant life, such as moss, grass, shrubs and trees
  3. Living Creations (חי) - animal life, such as mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, birds and insects.
  4. Speaking Creations (מדבר) - human beings. 
R. Bechaya b. Asher (d. 1340) describes these groups as follows:

It is known that the physical creations of our world are divided into four categories, one more elevated than the next: Inanimate objects, vegetative creations, living creations, and speaking creations.… Just as the vegetative creations are elevated above the inanimate creations, so too the living creations are elevated above the vegetative creations, and the speaking creations above the living creations (R. Bechaya al ha-Torah, Hakdamah le-Parshas Va-Yakel)

וידוע כי חלקי הנבראים השפלים ארבעה זה למעלה מזה והם הדומם והצומח והחי והמדבר... כשם שנתעלה הצומח על הדומם כך נתעלה החי על הצומח והמדבר על החי

These four primary groups are not mere categories of beings, distinguished solely by differing characteristics.  If this were the case, animals would only be different than plants, and human beings only different than animals.[1]  Rather, these groups form distinct levels in the physical world – each group more spiritually elevated and more central to creation than the next.  

Hence, our world contains a hierarchy of creations.  A human being is more elevated than a hummingbird, an eagle more elevated than an elm tree, and a lilac more elevated than a limestone. 

Beings in the physical world are endowed with capabilities commensurate to their level of elevation.  Whereas plants are endowed with capabilities that reflect their level in creation, animals possess greater capabilities, reflecting their more elevated level in creation.  The more a group is elevated, the more elevated are the capabilities it possess.

This fundamental concept is expressed by the Maharal of Prague (R. Judah Loew, d. 1609) in the opening line of Tiferes Yisrael, one of his many monumental works on Jewish thought.  

All of the creations of God function within the world He created.  Yet, the greatness of a creation’s functions are commensurate to the elevation and importance of each and every individual creation. (Tiferes Yisrael, Chapter 1)

הנבראים אשר ברא ה' יתברך בעולמו כלם הם פועלים בעולם אשר נבראו בו וכל אחד לפי מעלתו וחשיבותו גודל פעולתו

The unique capabilities granted to each group are also related to their purpose in creation.  In other word: A creation’s elevation and resultant capabilities reflect its purpose in creation.  The more elevated and capable the creation, the more exalted is its role in creation.  Hence man, as the most elevated being, is the pinnacle of creation.  Accordingly, all lower beings exist to service him and to facilitate his achievement of his elevated role.[2]

This principle is expressed by a Midrash that records a conversation between God and Adam, “When God created Adam, He took him to every tree in the Garden of Eden and said to him, “Look at my creations - how beautiful and fine they are!  Everything I created was for you.  Be wary.  Do not destroy my world.” (Koheles Rabbah 7). 

Man bears an awesome responsibility.  He is charged to properly utilize all of creation to fulfill his role in the world.  As the pinnacle of creation, man contains the potential for dominion over all that was created.  The Maharal writes (Tiferes Yisrael, chapter 4): “Mankind is king [in creation], for everything else [in creation] is subordinate to him.  His kingship is reflected in that he brings completion to everything in the lower world, as everything in the lower world was created to serve him.”  In this vein, R. Simcha Zisel of Kelm (Saba of Kelm, d. 1898) used to wake up his young children by gently telling them, “Children, you are sleeping away your kingship,” for God inaugurated man as king over all of creation. (Sefer ha-Meoros ha-Gedolim, p. 123).

[1] Such a conclusion could lead one to foolishly proclaim the rights afforded human beings to be equally applicable to animals, and even plants. 
[2] In regards to “roles,” it is important to note that one element of a group’s role in creation is subordination to the next, more elevated, group.  For example, plants do not only have a distinct role to play in the world as a plants, but they also serve a vital role in the world by being subordinated to the animal kingdom.  See R. Meir Simcha of Dvinsk’s (d. 1926) Meshech Chochmah, Bereshis 33:18, where he suggests that this relationship is even reflected in the food chain.                    
Moreover, each lower group also facilitates the more elevated groups in fulfilling the later’s role in creation.  Hence, a plant is not only subordinate to the animals, but also assists the animals in fulfilling their role in creation.  However, it is interesting to note that this relationship is not only one directional; it is mutually beneficial.  Each time a plant facilitates an animal in fulfilling its role in creation, this same act also elevates the plant, because this too is a fulfillment of the plant’s intended purpose, as a lower creature.  

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