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)
The Chofetz Chaim, a leading sage of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, conveys the following message regarding the potential of the human being to emulate the universal lovingkindness of Hashem – the Compassionate One: "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 lovingkindness endures forever' (Psalm 136:25). The existence of the entire world then depends on this virtue." ("Loving Kindness" chapter 2)
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 universal Divine love and compassion. The Compassionate One did not only give us the gift of being in the Divine image; the Compassionate One lovingly 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 main 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.
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 opportunity to get a proper Torah education, but they absorbed from their parents certain traditional Jewish values, including the value of human dignity. The belief in human dignity 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, employment, and educational opportunities. My parents also absorbed the traditional Jewish idea that human beings are placed on this earth in order to develop a compassionate and caring society. They therefore opposed those who wanted to create a society based on the "law of the jungle" - where only the "strong" survive. To my parents, such an attitude was "inhuman"! And when they wanted to praise someone who was an ethical and giving person, they would say that he or she was a "mensch" - a true human being. In their own way, my parents recognized the unique spiritual potential within all human beings.
In a previous letter, we discussed the mitzvah – Divine mandate – to actualize our unique spiritual potential through emulating the Divine ways, especially the Divine compassion. This mitzvah should therefore inspire us to create a society where other creatures are treated in a "humane" way, for it is written, "The Compassionate One is good to all, and His compassion is on all His works" (Psalm 145:9). In fact, there are many Torah teachings and mitzvos which can help us to achieve this goal, and we shall discuss some of them in future letters.
There are activists on behalf of animal welfare who are inspired by the Torah's perspective on human potential. There are, however, some activists on behalf of animal welfare who disagree with the Torah's perspective on human potential, for they view the human being as just another form of animal life; thus, they will not use terms such as "human dignity" and "humane behavior" which imply that there is something special about being human. Jewish tradition would encourage these activists to use their human intelligence and think about the following idea: The very compassion and concern that they feel for all creatures is a reminder of the unique spiritual greatness of the human being. As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a leading 19th century sage and biblical commentator, writes:
"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 Jewish tradition, 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 states that the Creator was addressing all the creatures that preceded the human being, 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 deer, his agility to the eagle, his cunning to the fox, his capacity for growth to the flora - all of which are unified within the human being.
The Vilna Gaon's teaching leads to the following insight: Since the human being reflects the unity of the Divine creation, the human being has the unique ability to identify and empathize with all aspects of creation. The Creator therefore chose the human being to be the steward over the Divine estate, as it is written:
"The Compassionate and Just One took the human being and placed him in the Garden of Eden to serve it and to protect it." (Genesis 2:15)
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
1. Last year, we began the series titled, "The Journey to Unity." The upcoming letters regarding our relationship to other creatures are a continuation of this series, for the unity that we are seeking is a unity which includes all the creatures within the Divine creation. As we travel on the next stage of our journey, we will come across some unfamiliar terrain. I am therefore pleased to announce that we are privileged to have an experienced guide for this stage of our journey: Rabbi David Sears. He is the author of, "The Vision of Eden" – Animal Welfare and Vegetarianism in Jewish Law and Mysticism. The book is published by Orot: www.orot.com . Rabbi Sears is the author of several other books, including "Compassion for Humanity in the Jewish Tradition," and "The Path of the Baal Shem Tov: Early Chassidic Teachings and Customs."
2. A copy of our previous letter on the mitzvah to emulate the Divine ways is available upon request.
3. A copy of our letter on how to emulate the Divine empathy in a healthy and life-affirming way is also available upon request.