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Between Humans and Animals

05/17/2019 02:07:23 PM


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A wise man once quipped:

Each morning we recite blessings, thanking G-d for what we have, who we are and who we are not. For example, we thank G-d that we are free and not slaves.

He asked, "Why don't we thank G-d that we are humans and not animals?"

He answered, "because it might be a false blessing (a bracha levatalah, a halachik concept which cautions us against reciting G-d's name in vain)."

Though he may have said this in jest, there is a profound truth to this.

From a biological and anatomical perspective, there are obvious differences between humans and animals. But from a psychological and spiritual perspective, the differences are far more subtle.

Putting aside externals, what makes a human different from an animal?

A human possesses self-awareness and cognition, which provide the potential for discipline, decision making, morality and conscientious behavior. Even when humans are triggered by impulse to think or behave in a certain way, we have the ability to curb the instinct and make a thoughtful and deliberate decision.

Using this potential leads to 'self-mastery'. A fully developed human is one who achieves mastery over their character. A human takes responsibility for their actions, doesn't blame other people or circumstances, isn't controlled by their genetic code or surrounding influences, is honest and recognizes their shortcomings, strives to make amends, isn't predictable, knows how to turn any situation into something positive, doesn't seek problems but seeks solutions, recognizes the equal value of other people and practices selfless kindness, acknowledges that their control of life is limited, is confident enough to surrender when necessary, and attempts to live happily and purposefully.

Conversely, an animal isn't capable of any of this.

Are we so sure that we are fully human? At best, we can call ourselves 'humans in progress'. We are given all the tools we need, but the work is ours to develop our full potential.

This process is one of the themes during this time of year, when we 'count the Omer'. The Omer was a sacrifice offered on Pesach in the Temple, and marked the beginning of the seven week countdown towards Shavuot. Interestingly, the Omer offering consisted of barley grain, considered by the Sages as animal fodder. Seven weeks later, the Shavuot offering consisted of wheat grain, considered as human food.

Thus, the ancient spiritual masters understood the seven-week Omer count as a process of spiritual and behavioral development, from being animalistic towards becoming fully human. Each day we focus on another faculty of our persona, working to refine and elevate ourselves.

Perhaps, each morning, we could add a blessing and commitment: Dear G-d, thank you for giving me all the tools to be a human, and I pledge to work on becoming more human today.

Mon, February 26 2024 17 Adar I 5784