How Animals Can Teach Us About Our Behavior
I would like to share a beautiful piece of wisdom from my late grandfather, Rabbi Yosef Zvi Dunner (1913-2007), a remarkable man whose rabbinic career spanned almost 70 years, first as a rabbi in prewar-Germany and later on in England. This wonderful thought is just one of many similarly inspiring pieces that appear in Mikdash Halevi, his posthumously published book of Torah expositions.
There is a fascinating verse in Proverbs (6:6): “Go to the ant, lazy person; consider her ways and be wise.” In this pithy instruction, King Solomon identifies the ant as a primary example of industry and energy, advising us all to use this seemingly insignificant creature as a model of how one should tirelessly pursue our life goals.
As anyone who has ever observed ants will know, an ant is always on the move, and despite being just a tiny part of a vast colony, every individual ant seems to revel in its mundane functions, constantly motivated to do what needs to be done without getting tired or needing a break.
What better role-model could there be? If any of us has ever felt that our life is too monotonous, or if we have ever lacked the motivation to do the regular stuff in our lives — the humble ant can inspire us. Always active, never taking a break, totally devoted — if only we could match the ant, wouldn’t that be great?
But my grandfather makes an observation about this verse that is as indisputable as it is thought-provoking. The ant is not industrious because it has worked through its indolent issues and gone through a process of character development to emerge as a paradigm of perfection. On the contrary, this is the ultimate case of nature, not nurture.
Ants are pre-programmed to behave a certain way, and everything they do — however impressive it may seem to us — is completely instinctive. On that basis, how is it possible to cite ants as an example for humans, who are given the free choice to be vigorous or lazy?
No ant has ever chosen to be active or languid — they are what they are. We, on the other hand, have choices — and while laziness may be a poor choice, it constantly lurks as a threat to our success, while ants never have to contend with it. So why would King Solomon suggest that we look at the ant for inspiration?
This question is further compounded by a Talmudic passage about the dove that returned to Noah’s Ark after the flood was over with an olive branch clenched in its beak, an image that is universally used as a positive symbol of peace and freedom.
Rather than seeing the dove’s return to the Ark in a positive light, the sage Rabbi Yirmiya ben Eleazer has a jarring comment regarding the symbolism of the olive branch (Eruvin 18b): “The dove said to God: Master of the Universe, rather let my food be bitter as an olive, but given by Your hand, rather than it should be sweet as honey but dependent upon flesh and blood.”
The idea behind this statement seems to be that the dove wished to convey the importance of self-reliance as opposed to dependence on others — in other words, better the tough realities which accompany providing for oneself than the increased material benefits which are made possible by relying on the benevolence of others.
The clear intent of this passage is to use the dove as a role model, but truthfully, the dove’s attitude is deeply flawed. How can the dove so callously disregard the kindness of Noah and his family, who had worked tirelessly to feed and nurture all the animals and birds in the Ark as the flood raged around them?
In the Talmudic passage the olive branch is akin to a knife in Noah’s back, an incomparable snub directed against the person to whom the dove owed its life. And yet, the Talmud seems to urge us all to emulate this ungrateful bird, as if Noah’s role in the dove’s survival can be summarily dismissed.
My grandfather’s intriguing solution to this conundrum is to suggest that anyone who interprets lessons based on the actions of animals and birds mentioned in scripture or Talmud as being literal has missed the point entirely.
The dove that returned to the Ark had no notion whatsoever that the olive branch symbolized self-reliance, and similarly it had no thoughts of offending Noah’s kindness by clasping the olive branch in its beak. Rather the symbolism of the olive branch was entirely divinely ordained, and the fact that the dove brought back the branch was not deliberate, but nor did it happen by chance.
God used His creature as a physical embodiment of aspirational behavior, a metaphor recorded in scripture teaching us how we should all conduct ourselves. Consequently, anyone who thinks that the dove was in any way conscious of what it was doing or how its actions would be interpreted, has missed the point entirely.
Similarly, anyone who believes that an ant is more industrious than the sloth — an animal that spends most of its life suspended from the branches of a tree and rarely does anything — has missed the point of King Solomon’s parable. King Solomon is simply telling us that the ant’s energetic diligence is a mirror for us to hold up so that we can have an example of how we should conduct ourselves.
The point is that God created natural phenomena and physical creatures for us to learn from, so that in our human lives we might behave better.
The great Rabbi Yochanan makes exactly this point in tractate Eruvin (100b): “Had the Torah not been given, we would nonetheless have learned modesty from the cat, which covers its excrement; and that stealing is objectionable from the ant, which does not take grain from another ant; and that forbidden relations are prohibited from the dove, which is faithful to its partner; and the proper way to engage conjugally from the rooster, which first engages with the hen, and only then mates with it.”
Perhaps this explains why it was so important for animals, birds and insects to be saved from the flood, not just humans. The lives of God’s creatures are not just of interest for anthropological reasons — each and every animal, great and small, has something to teach us about our own behavior, and how we might improve ourselves in the service of God. Our job is to find that lesson, and to make it stick.