Sunday, March 15, 2015

Jewish Thought: Man (Part II) - Essentially Unique

Rav Leibowitz

Last week we noted that our sages identify four primary levels of "beings" in creation. This week we continue that discussion.

An Essentially Unique Level

In general, we find that a more elevated group possesses the capabilities of the groups beneath it, in addition to its own more elevated capabilities.  Therefore, to discover the capabilities that truly reflect a group’s elevation, it is necessary to isolate the unique capabilities of a particular group.  Abilities that are shared with a less elevated group do not reflect elevation.    

Accordingly, human beings – as the most elevated group in creation – not only possess the capabilities of the other groups, but must also be endowed with unique capabilities that stem from their most elevated level in creation.  These capabilities must be unique to mankind, and cannot be shared with the animal kingdom or plant life.   

Before we can explore man’s unique capabilities, an additional point must be made.  Observation reveals to us that within each group we find varying degrees of sophistication and complexity.  For instance, among plants, a Venus fly trap is more complex than a blade of grass.  Among animals, a dolphin is more sophisticated than a worm.  

The classification system described above implies that every animal, even the most basic animal, exists on a more elevated level than the most sophisticated plant.  This is because the difference between an animal and a plant is essential and inherent.  A Venus fly trap, like a blade of grass, is a plant and in the “vegetative creations” group.  No one would consider it an animal or a member of the “living creations group,” “eating” habits notwithstanding.[1] Similarly, a worm remains an animal and a member of the “living creations” group, albeit an unsophisticated one.  We would not deny this identification and classify a worm as an “advanced plant.” 

This is also the case with human beings.  Mankind occupies a unique level in the hierarchy of creation. Man is essentially distinct from even the most sophisticated members of the “living creations” group.  Just as an animal is not a more sophisticated plant, but is part of an entirely distinct level in creation, so too, a human being is not merely a more sophisticated form of animal.  A human is a member of an entirely distinct level in creation.

Many intelligent people err regarding this fundamental point.  They mistakenly view human beings as a member of the “living creations” group.  The most sophisticated member.  This error is not surprising, for one can look at a human being and truly see only an animal.  To a certain degree, humans look like most animals, and share with them many physical attributes.  They have two eyes and ears, lungs and a respiratory system, a heart and a cardio-vascular network of veins and arteries, etc.  Humans also often act in similar ways to animals.  They get angry, frustrated, and excited.  The Ramban indeed notes (Bereshis 2:7) that many of man’s basic instincts are shared with the animal kingdom.  As an example, the Ramban mentions that both man and beast instinctually avoid pain and pursue pleasurable activities. 

Based on these observations it is easy to mistakenly conclude that human beings are simply sophisticated animals.  In fact, a similar observation appears in the book of Koheles, and is attributed to individuals who erroneously equate mankind with the animals.

For the happenings of mankind are like the happenings of the animals, they experience the same happenings.  Just as one dies, so too the other dies - they all share one essence.  Man has no elevation over the animals, for all is vanity.  (Koheles 3:19)

כי מקרה בני האדם ומקרה הבהמה, ומקרה אחד להם, כמות זה כן מות זה ורוח אחד לכל ומותר האדם מן הבהמה אין כי הכל הבל:

In explanation, R. Avraham Ibn Ezra (d. 1167) writes:

This verse records the thoughts of people who are uneducated and upon seeing that the happenings of man and animal are similar in life and death, assume that their essence is the same, and that man has no elevation over the animals.  

זה הפסוק על מחשבות בני אדם שלא חכמו והשכילו כי בראותם שמקרה אחד לאדם ולבהמה בחיים ובמות חשבו כי רוח אחד לכל ואין לאדם מותר מן הבהמה.

Indeed, the casual observer concludes that the fate of man is that of the animals.  And a superficial look at man leads one to conclude that man is merely a sophisticated animal.  Yet, man must be destined for a more elevated existence.  King Shelomo echoed this very sentiment after recording the above quoted error of people who think that man is no greater than the animals.  Two verses later in Koheles, King Shelomo laments that so few people consider that human beings exist on a distinct and more elevated level in creation than the animal of the world. 

Who knows the essence of man that it elevates upward, while the essence of the animals descends down to the earth?  (Koheles 3:21)

מי יודע רוח בני האדם העלה היא למעלה ורוח הבהמה הירדת היא למטה לארץ.
It is, indeed, few people who recognize that man is not merely a sophisticated animal, but an inherently more elevated being, who occupies an entirely distinct level in the hierarchy of creation.

In Tehilim (49:21) King Shelomo’s father, King David, laments that man is often oblivious to his elevated essence.  “Man is precious, yet when he does not understand this…”  Few people appreciate that as an inherently more elevated being, man is capable of an existence that greatly transcend those of the rest of creation.

[1] Venus fly traps are one out hundreds of species of carnivorous plants.  But, Venus fly traps do not actually eat their prey.  Their lightning fast lobes trap their prey and then secrete enzymes that “digest” the nutrients from the trapped insects.   

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