Human Sanctity and the Animal Kingdom
In this week’s reading of Parshat Noah, the Torah presents the first in a series of teachings where God imparts a code of ethics for how our “new world” should be guided.
Through a modern lens of morality, one would expect that the commands might focus first on relations among fellow men, prohibiting murder and theft or something similar. While God does eventually mention these prohibitions, they only come later.
As might be expected, the first teaching stresses the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply,” which is understandably the very core of our continued existence and deserves its place as the first mitzvah in the Torah.
But the very next commandment seems strange: “Every living creature should be for your consumption — just like the grasses of the fields, I have given all for you.” Even though the Torah later qualifies this teaching in terms of which living creatures are included, the understanding is clear: we are permitted and even encouraged to consume animals for our nutritional needs.
The obvious question is why this is so important as to be raised as one of the first commandments. Is it possible that God has prioritized our right to eat steaks and schnitzel? After having essentially destroyed the world He created, is this a priority?
Soon thereafter, God quickly turns to the topics that we would have thought would come first: prohibiting the murder of fellow humans, etc.
But the question of why the mitzvah to eat meat preceded this one remains a mystery.
We know that every letter in the Torah has meaning, as does the order of the commandments.
I would suggest that God wants us to understand from the very outset that there is a definite hierarchy among living creatures and that by saying we are permitted to eat animals, God intends us to infer that humans must be placed on a higher level. All living things are not equal, and we cannot and must not treat humans the way that we are allowed to treat animals.
In Nazi Germany, there were many people who valiantly promoted the rights of animals and at the very same time were actively participating in the very worst acts against humans.
During the expulsion of Gush Katif, I recall animal-rights advocates who prioritized the plight of animals left behind in the evacuated areas. I am troubled to recognize that those same advocates had far less concern for the humans who were forced out of their homes.
This should in no way be interpreted as a callous approach to the importance of animals. The Torah makes it very clear that animals should not be unnecessarily mistreated, and that their slaughter must be performed in the least painful manner possible.
Yet, the lesson from the teachings of God to Noah is that there must be priorities in how we measure life — and that human life is indeed superior.
At a time when our people are once again being targeted in Israel and around the world simply for being Jews, this lesson should be remembered, as we recall the sanctity of man who was created in God’s image.