Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Kinship of All Creatures

In memory of my mother, Grace Sears: 
Gittel bas Yitzchok 
Yahrtzeit: 5 Adar

From The Vision of Eden: Animal Welfare and Vegetarianism in Jewish Law and Mysticism by Dovid Sears. For more information, click here.

Rosh Hashanah commemorates the “birthday of the universe,” as we mention repeatedly during the Musaf (Additional) prayer service. However, we observe Rosh Hashanah on the first day of Tishrey, which actually corresponds to the sixth day of creation, when God created Adam and Eve. Accordingly, the first day of creation corresponds to the 25th day of Elul. In honor of that day we are posting these few quotes, which remind us of the value and kinship of all created things.

Although it is out of order chronologically, we would like to begin with a quote from Rabbi Yehudah Loewe ben Betzalel (circa 1520-1609), the “MaHaRaL” of Prague, which sums up the basic idea these various sources elaborate upon: “The love of all creatures is also love of God; for whoever loves the One, loves all the works that He has made” (Nesivos Olam, Ahavas Re’a, 1.33).


One should respect all creatures, recognizing in them the greatness of the Creator, Who formed man with wisdom. All creatures are imbued with the Creator’s wisdom, which itself makes them greatly deserving of honor. The Maker of All, the Wise One who transcends everything, is associated [with all His creatures] in having created them. If one were to disparage them, God forbid, this would reflect upon the honor of their Maker. This is the meaning of the verse, “How worthy are Your works, O God...” (Psalms 104:24). It does not say “how great (gadlu)” but “how worthy (rabbu),” as in the verse “the head (rav) of his house” (Esther 1:8), indicating great importance. [The verse concludes,] “You have made them all with wisdom.” That is, since Your wisdom is imbued in them, Your works are great and worthy. Therefore, a person should consider the divine wisdom within them, and not their disgrace (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, Tomer Devorah, Chapter 2).


[The Zohar (Emor, 106b) states that while crossing a stream, Rabbi Yosé stepped on some worms and exclaimed that he wished such creatures did not exist. At this, his master Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai declared that it is forbidden to disparage or to kill any creature, for they all serve to benefit the world.]

One might ask: if so, how can the Torah permit us to kill a snake on the Sabbath in the land of Israel, or [to kill any dangerous or bothersome animal] under similar circumstances?

The term “disparage” could mean either in word or in deed. Rabbi Yosé was guilty of both. First, by stepping upon the worms, he violated the prohibition of wantonly killing small creatures that are not harmful to humans [such as flies, gnats, and worms]. Second, by exclaiming, “Would that they did not exist!” he spoke disrespectfully regarding the order of the universe, which reflects upon the honor of the Creator. If a dangerous creature threatens a person, or if there is a harmful snake in one’s house or courtyard, one is justified in killing it to avoid being hurt. However, if a snake is in the field going its own way, one must not interfere with it; for the snake is fulfilling its mission according to the divine will. The story cited above attests to this, as do many such stories that we have discussed elsewhere.

Even when creatures are sent on a mission to do harm, “God is good to all” (Psalms 145:9); for, in truth, this too is a good mission, since the death they cause will benefit the soul of the transgressor. God’s mercy extends even to creatures that do not perform their mission [i.e., immoral people] in that He sustains them nevertheless. Thus, we are obligated to follow in His ways and show compassion toward all His works, never destroying them wantonly as long as they do not harm us.

Moreover, to diminish God’s creation is to diminish the manifestation of His mercies. According to the diversity of creation, through each and every species, God’s mercies are evident. This is implied by the divine blessing “fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 8:17), as well as by the subsequent verse [in the psalm quoted above], “All Your works, O God, shall praise You…” (Psalms 145:10). That is, over each species in creation, an angel is appointed who sings praises to the Creator; and the praises of the One who sustains all creatures are increased according to the multitude of angelic hosts. One who destroys a swarm of bees or flies or a colony of ants therefore destroys the praises of God, unless these creatures are in one’s house and are harmful. In this case, it is permitted to remove them, albeit in the most humane manner possible. Even this is not proper according to what we see in Tractate  Bava Metzia  (85a) concerning the nest of weasels that were found in the house of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi. He told his maidservant to leave them alone, for “His mercies are upon all His creatures.”

Thus, wantonly to kill even harmful creatures such as mice and weasels would be unseemly, since unlike snakes they do not physically afflict human beings. It would be preferable for a person to keep a cat who will consume them, as this conforms to the ways of the angels who determine how one species is subjugated to another. This may be deduced from the words of the Book of Song (Perek Shirah): “The mouse, what does it say? ‘For You are righteous in all that comes upon us, for You have performed truthfully, and we have acted wickedly’ (Nehemiah 9:33). The cat, what does it say? ‘I pursued my enemies and overtook them, and returned not until they were destroyed’ (Psalms 18:38).” This teaches that [the preying of one species upon another] is God’s will, and reflects His absolute mercy toward the needs of His creatures.

Similarly,  Perek Shirah concludes by describing how King David was pleased with himself upon completing the Book of Psalms, when he happened upon a frog [who contended that its praises of God were superior]. This story does not mean to extol the croaking of the frog, but [the songs and praises of] the angel that presides over frogs. And their leaping too was an expression of the spiritual inspiration that came to them from their presiding angel, who sings melodies and praises to God.

This also applies to the frog’s remark [in Perek Shirah] that it has resigned itself to its fate, to serve as food for the stork or crane, or another bird. In other words, the presiding angel itself fulfills the will of its Maker in compelling the families of frogs not to rebel, but submit to the species designated to consume them. Therefore, it is proper to raise other creatures to prey upon destructive animals, for this follows the natural order. Thus, when Rabbi Yehudah’s maidservant came to destroy the weasels, he told her to let them alone; but, nevertheless, he raised cats, for this [way of ridding oneself of pests] reflects the divine mercy, as our sages taught on the verse, “A tzaddik considers the needs of his animal...” (Proverbs 12:10).[1]

One might ask: since the calf was destined for slaughter, why was Rabbi Yehudah afflicted for saying, “Go, this is the purpose for which you were created”? To this it could be said that there might have been a transmigrated soul in the calf, and it was possible to save it for all eternity from an evil fate, from slaughter.[2] Or perhaps he should have entreated the slaughterer to postpone the killing at least for that day. [This would have served as an example of compassion to everyone present] (Ohr Yakar, commentary to  Zohar, Emor, pp. 137-138).


There is a fundamental principle I would like to share with you, my brother: Just as God is infinite, so all divine attributes are infinite. Thus, His humility and His providence are infinite. God watches over each of His works, even the least of them. God does not merely watch over the various species in a general manner, as Maimonides, of blessed memory, and others maintain.[3] Do not be perplexed that the Holy King, for Whom “the heavens are His throne,” gazes upon and discerns the tiniest creatures in dunghills and unclean places; for also among large animals we see that certain species are not kosher, but the All Seeing One nevertheless watches over them in every detail of their lives.

Indeed, God takes pride in them, as he tells Job: “Do you know the time when the wild goats of the rock give birth or observe when the hinds calve? … The wing of the peacock rejoices are they wings or feathers of a stork? For she leaves her eggs in the ground, and she warms them with the earth … The young vultures gulp down blood, and where the carrion lies, there is [the parent bird]” (Job 39:1, 13, 14, 30).

Before the Blessed One there is no difference whatever between a large creature and a small creature; and the unseemliness of a place is no obstacle to Him, as the author of the Song of Unity wrote in the section corresponding to the third day: “The mighty wind does not repel You; even all foulness does not befoul You.” The meaning is that of all lower creatures, none is repulsive before Him but a transgressor, a proud man, and evildoer he alone is despicable to God and foul smelling.

Rather, know, my brother, remember and do not forget that just as God’s providence applies to all the worlds and all creatures, so does His Essence utterly transcend all worlds and all creatures, being hidden and removed from them. This is the meaning of the verse: “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of Hosts…” (Isaiah 6:3).

The term “holy” (kadosh) indicates the separation and removal of His Essence from everything, due to the loftiness of His sublime and wondrous station, reaching unto infinity. Nevertheless, the verse concludes: “The entire world is full of His glory,”  as if to say: while God utterly transcends all the worlds, His providence is constantly bound to all the worlds and all His works, down to the smallest detail, even unto this lowly world, which in its entirety is full of His glory (Rabbi Pinchas Eliyahu Horowitz of Vilna, Sefer HaBris I, Ma’amar 14, Eichus HaChai, sec. 8, s.v. vi-klal gadol, p. 224).


The Baal Shem Tov taught: Do not consider yourself superior because you experience deveikus (attachment to God) to a greater extent than someone else. In truth, you are no different than any other creature, since all things were brought into being to serve God. Just as God bestows consciousness upon you, so does He bestow consciousness upon your fellow man. In what way is a human being superior to a worm? A worm serves the Creator with all of his intelligence and ability; and man, too, is compared to a worm or maggot, as the verse states, “I am a worm and not a man” (Psalms 22:7). If God had not given you a human intellect, you would only be able to serve Him like a worm. In this sense, you are both equal in the eyes of Heaven. A person should consider himself and the worm and all creatures as comrades in the universe, for we are all created beings whose abilities are God-given. This should always remain in your thoughts (Tzava’as HaRivash 12).


The Baal Shem Tov taught that when a piece of straw falls from a wagon loaded with straw, this has been decreed by Heaven. Similarly, when a leaf falls from a tree, it is because Heaven has decreed that this particular leaf  at this particular moment would fall at this particular spot. Once the Baal Shem Tov showed his disciples a certain leaf as it fell to the ground and told them to pick it up. They did so and saw that a worm was underneath it. The Baal Shem Tov explained that the worm had been suffering due to the heat, so this leaf had fallen to give it shade (Sha’ar HaOsios, “Hashgachah Pratis”).


The entire universe is included within the mystical paradigm of the human form. Israel and the nations of the world represent  the upper part of the body: those who contemplate divine wisdom and engage in holy speech correspond to the head, while those who do the skilled work of the world correspond to the hands. The animals correspond to the legs, for they perform all their activities on their feet. This correspondence extends to the level of creatures that cannot walk, but crawl; and similarly to the rest of creation (Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz, Midrash Pinchas I, 22).


Adam was created last of all creatures because the Holy One, blessed be He, asked all creatures to contribute their portion to Adam’s body: the lion his might, the deer his speed, the eagle his agility, the fox his cleverness, etc. All these traits were given to Adam Thus, the verse states: “Let us make man in our image…” (Genesis 1:26), indicating that the essential traits of all species are included in humankind (Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo, the Vilna Gaon,  Aderes Eliyahu, Bereishis 1:26).

Rabbi Menashe of Ilya, Lithuania (1767-1832), a leading disciple of the Vilna Gaon, once wrote: “What am I in comparison to the many forms of sentient life in the world? If the Creator were to confer upon me, as well as my family members, loved ones, and relatives, absolute goodness for all eternity, but some deficiency remained in the world— if any living thing still were suffering, and all the more so, another human being, I would not want anything to do with it, much less to derive benefit from it. How could I be separated from all living creatures? These are the works of God’s hand, and these too are the work of God’s hand”[4] (Author’s Introduction, Ha’amek She’eilah, cited in biography printed with Alfei Menashe, Vol. II).


Not only for the physical harm that I have caused my fellow men do I beg forgiveness, but also for their spiritual afflictions that I have brought about through my many misdeeds. For our sages taught that one should consider the world to be balanced between good and evil, and one’s deeds tip the scales.

Similarly, I ask forgiveness from all creatures, whether in the mineral, vegetative, animal or human realms, for my having transgressed against them and caused them suffering, whether physical or spiritual. Also, from the depths of my heart I beg all souls, both the living and the dead, and all celestial beings, from the lowest to the highest, to have mercy and forgive me completely for all my transgressions and sins against them, and for having caused them any form of grief or spiritual defect. Instead, may they intercede for me and tip the scales of judgment to the side of merit. May they beseech God to forgive me for everything, and may I be protected by the shadow of His compassion (Ethical Will of Rabbi Nachman Goldstein, Rav of Tcherin, included in Kochvei Ohr, Breslov writings and oral traditions).


The lights of life that animate the entire hierarchy of living creatures according to their species are but shards of one lofty collective soul possessed of all wisdom and talent, divided into many separate parts (Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, Orot HaKodesh, II, p. 358).


The human soul in its greatest breadth contains the individual souls of all creatures. Each living thing is a spark of the vast all-encompassing fire that is the collective soul of humankind (ibid. p. 359).

Man stands and wonders: what need is there for the diversity of creation? He is unable to understand how everything comprises one great unity… If you are amazed at how it is possible to speak, hear, smell, touch, see, understand and feel tell your soul that all living things collectively confer upon you the fullness of your experience. Not the least speck of existence is superfluous, everything is needed, and everything serves its purpose. “You” are present within everything that is beneath you, and your being is bound up with all that transcends you (ibid. p. 361).


We do not know how to measure the invigoration and spiritual well-being that animals incapable of speech confer upon us, simply by virtue of the fact that we coexist. The vital symbiosis of members of the same nation already has been revealed to us, and those who possess a clearer vision glimpse that of all humanity, as well. However, the spiritual symbiosis of all living beings still remains hidden. As of yet, no researcher dares voice his conviction regarding this perception. Nevertheless, these far-out propositions arrive before the precise sciences almost as dreams to augur their revelation. Already we can be elevated to that lofty height at which humankind becomes one with the totality of life, even with vegetation and inanimate existence (ibid. p. 363).[5]       


Everything around us was created by God and serves Him. Every force of nature is the messenger of God; matter is what God has apportioned to these forces to work with, in, and through, in accordance with His mighty laws. Everything exists in God’s service, at its post, in its time, to fulfill God’s Word with the means and powers allocated to it, contributing its share to Him, to become part of one all-inclusive entity. Everything serves God (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Nineteen Letters, Letter Three, trans. Karin Partitzky, commentary by R. Joseph Elias [Jerusalem: Feldheim, 1995]).

[1] R. Cordovero probably alludes to Vayikra Rabba 27:11 and Pesikta D’Rav Kahana on Vayikra 22:28, which interpret the term “righteous” as referring to the Creator, Who “understands the nature of His animal” in mandating that His human subjects show compassion toward animals.
[2] That is, the calf’s tikkun might have been accomplished by other means, without causing it distress.
[3] The author of Sefer HaBris alludes to Moreh Nevuchim 3:17. Among subsequent Jewish philosophers, R. Albo takes a similar position to Maimonides in Sefer HaIkkarim 4:11; for numerous additional sources see R. Aryeh Kaplan’s Handbook of Jewish Thought, Vol. 2, chap. 19, nn. 34-36. However, R. Moshe (Cheifetz) Gentili (1663-1711) agrees with the Sefer HaBris in Mileches Machsheves, Noach (19a).
[4] This statement is consistent with R. Menashe’s ideas regarding the kinship of all creatures presented in his Tikkun Klalli, of which only an incomplete manuscript is extant. I am grateful to R. Yaakov Weiss of Lakewood, NJ, for locating these sources from R. Menashe’s writings.
[5] R. Bezalel Naor shared the following personal anecdote. Meeting Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook’s son, R. Zvi Yehudah Kook (1891-1982) for the first time, he commented on how much ahavas Yisrael (love of Israel) the latter’s father had possessed. The octogenarian R. Zvi Yehudah burst out laughing. “Mai revusa ika? (What’s the big deal?) My father loved the whole world, even tzomeach (vegetation), even domem (earth and stones)!”

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