“Who Teaches Us More Than the Animals of the Earth And Makes Us Wiser Than the Birds of Heaven?”
On the verse, “When a woman conceives and gives birth to a male” (Leviticus 12:2), Rashi brings the following Midrash: “Rabbi Simlai said: ‘Just as the creation of man [took place] after that of every animal, beast and bird in the work of Creation, so too are his laws specified after the laws of the animal, beast and bird’ ” (Vayikra Rabba 14:1). One may consult the book Nitfei Maim on this subject.
This demands an explanation. With respect to the work of Creation, we can understand why man was created on the sixth day, after the creation of land animals and bird. The Gemara explains that it was necessary that man find everything prepared so as to immediately observe the mitzvah of Shabbat (Sanhedrin 38a). It was also necessary that he could be told, in case he became arrogant, that even a flea was created before him. Finally, it was in order that man not claim that he had participated in the work of Creation [for it is only man who testifies to Creation by reciting, “The sixth day. And the heavens and the earth and all their hosts were completed,” thus becoming a partner with G-d in the work of Creation (Shabbat 119b)]. Man was created on the sixth day for all these reasons. Nevertheless, why are the laws that concern man here given after those concerning animals? What does the Torah teach us by this, and would that change if the subject of man and his leprosy were mentioned before the subject of animals?
The answer is that the Torah in this way enjoins us to learn a few basic principles from domestic and wild animals, as it is written: “Who teaches us more than the animals of the earth and makes us wiser than the birds of heaven?” (Job 35:11). I will elaborate on this idea point by point:
1. The simple fact that animals and birds exist proves G-d’s existence, Who gives each of them their nourishment, as it is written: “He gives to an animals its food, to young ravens that cry out” (Psalms 147:9). How much more does He nourish man, who is the work of His hands (Kohelet Rabba 3:14)? This is why we always find animals and birds near man: Their mission is to constantly remind him that if G-d sees to their needs, He will also sees to his.
2. We may also learn the importance of self-sacrifice from animals, for they demonstrate extraordinary loyalty. For example, the frogs in Egypt went into each nook and cranny, including burning stoves, to obey G-d’s command (Pesachim 53b). We find the same behavior with Hanania, Mishael, and Azaria, who in Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon gave their lives for the sanctification of G-d’s Name, for they reasoned a fortiori on the basis of the frogs’ behavior. The Torah also mentions dogs during the exodus from Egypt: “But against the Children of Israel, no dog shall whet its tongue” (Exodus 11:7). How is it possible for the Children of Israel to have entered and left the Egyptians’ homes without a dog even growling (see Shemot Rabba 14:3)? The answer is that the dogs clearly understood that such was G-d’s will, and they loyally obeyed Him. In addition, the Zohar asserts that when a serpent appears, it only does so at G-d’s command, for it too acts loyally (Zohar II:68b). When the prophet Elijah sacrificed one ox to G-d and a second to Baal on Mount Carmel (I Kings 18:23), the ox destined for Baal protested that it did not want to go (Yalkut Shimoni ibid. 214). Elijah then said to it, “In the same way that G-d’s Name will be sanctified by the other ox, it will also be sanctified by you,” and it unselfishly consented. All people can and must learn self-sacrifice from animals and birds in order to be inspired, and they must constantly strive to sanctify G-d’s Name.
3. There are also many traits to be learned from animals, as the Sages have said: “If the Torah had not been given, we would have learned modesty from the cat, honesty from the ant, chastity from the dove, and good manners from the rooster” (Eruvin 100b).
The lesson is clear: When a person becomes boastful, we may say to him: “Even a flea was created before you” (we don’t tell him this if we know beforehand that he won’t heed our words, for we only admonish those who listen). Similarly, from animals a person should learn to conduct himself with self-sacrifice, for an animal’s devotion goes to the point of accepting to be sacrificed for man. Otherwise, when a person commits a sin, why would an animal be sacrificed for him? It is only because of self-sacrifice.
Commenting on the meaning of the sacrifices, the Ramban writes on Leviticus 1:9 that when an animal is being slaughtered, a person should realize that everything being done to it should really have been done to him, for the entire aim of a sacrifice is for a person to examine his life. The Rambam, however, believes that sacrifices uniquely teach us not to behave as non-Jews (Moreh Nevuchim 3:46) who worship different kinds of animals. According to him, sacrifices exist only to teach man to not devote himself to materialism or desires.
Thus people learn from animals that G-d constantly watches over them, that there has no reason to be proud, and that one also must generously give of himself. Animals also teach us that there is no reason to sin, since they are carrying out Hashem’s will. This is why the laws dealing with animals are mentioned before those dealing with people (with respect to sacrifices), showing us just to what point animals give of themselves by allowing to be sacrificed in our place. It was also for this reason that they were created before man, namely to be ready to be sacrificed if man sins (so that he may continue to live), for the world was created primarily for man (Shabbat 30b). The Midrash also states that the word bereshith (normally translated as “in the beginning”) means, “for Israel, which is called reshith [first fruit],” hence the world was created for the Jewish people (Bereshith Rabba 1:4).
This is absolutely amazing. If there were no sacrifices, or if man had been created before animals and had sinned at that time, he would have incurred death. In reflecting upon this, we fully understand why man was not created before animals. It was necessary that he see all of Creation, so that by understanding that everything existed for him, he would not become filled with pride, which would show him the pathway to repentance.
G-d is obviously aware of man’s nature, which is to become filled with pride. This is what may happen to him if he sees all of Creation, for he will imagine himself to be of great importance. This is why he was created last. Thus if he boasts, he can be told that even a mosquito was created before him. Furthermore, he can learn self-sacrifice and good behavior from animals. Even though it is easier for animals to control themselves, since they have no evil inclination (contrary to man), this can also be the case in man, for the Torah was given to him in order that he fight the evil inclination. In the words of the Gemara, “I created the evil inclination, and I created the Torah as its remedy” (Kiddushin 30b).
According to what we have said, we may understand the command that G-d gave to the Children of Israel at the time of the exodus from Egypt, namely: “On the tenth of this month they shall take for themselves – each man – a lamb for each father’s house” (Exodus 12:3). Furthermore, G-d commanded that they attach their lambs to their beds in view of the Egyptians, and then to slaughter the lambs before the eyes of the Egyptians, who witnessed all this yet did nothing (Zohar I:256a). Now as we know, the lamb was an Egyptian god (Shemot Rabba 11:4), and the Sages considered this incident to be miraculous, which is one of reasons why this Shabbat is called Shabbat Hagadol (the Great Shabbat).
All this becomes clear in light of the Rambam and Ramban’s views on the reasons for sacrifices. According to the Rambam, G-d wanted the Children of Israel to discard their Egyptian concepts. We said that those idolaters took animals as their gods and worshipped them, thus when lambs were attached to the beds of the Children of Israel, the Egyptians were forced to conclude that lambs were simply animals that possessed no divinity whatsoever, and so only G-d is worthy of worship. Furthermore, when the Children of Israel slaughtered their lambs, they dealt a deathblow to the idea that an animal could be divine, for their hearts harbored none of the beliefs held by the Egyptians. This was also the reason why G-d commanded them to take the blood of a lamb and to put it on the doorposts and lintel of their homes (Exodus 12:7), signifying that they saw no importance in the lamb’s blood (which symbolized divine vitality to the Egyptians), and that they only believed in Hashem. This act of faith would earn them deliverance, for G-d would pass over their doors and not let the destroying angel strike them (v.23), for they proved that they did not believe in pagan divinities, but rather in G-d alone.
If we go according to the view of the Ramban, we may say that the goal of sacrifices is to restore the Children of Israel from impurity, meaning that the fact they attached lambs teaches that a person should always stay attached to the service of G-d by giving his best, just as the lamb that was to be slaughtered for G-d. This also demonstrated that lambs (which the Egyptians considered as gods) really only exist to heal and serve man (Tanna D’vei Eliyahu Rabba 1). Thus the Children of Israel merited deliverance, for they courageously attached lambs to their beds without fear of the Egyptians, to the point that the latter could do them no harm.
From all this emerges the idea that when a person performs a mitzvah without reservation, he will end up being saved and a miracle will be performed for him. However this is only on condition that his mitzvah performance is complete, without awaiting a miracle, for “Whoever gives his life believing that a miracle will be performed for him, that person will not see one” (Sifra Vayikra 22:32). A person must act solely to sanctify G-d’s Name, which is why G-d commanded that the blood be placed on the doorposts and lintel of their homes. The blood alludes to the warmth of the body when a person unselfishly carries out a mitzvah, to the extent that this mitzvah taught the Children of Israel to behave valiantly, without fearing the Egyptians. We learn all this from the laws concerning animals.