Rabbi Gershon Avtzon

I am fascinated by animals. As a proud gold member of the Cincinnati Zoo for many years, I am always going there with my children to see and learn about the wondrous world created by G-d Almighty. 

There are many lessons to learn from the animals, as our sages note (Ethics of the Fathers 5:20): “Be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, fleeting as a deer, and mighty as a lion to do the will of your Father in Heaven.” 

While the zoo is nice, I had always wanted to go on an actual safari and watch the animals as they live in their natural habitat. I have relatives in South Africa who share pictures of their trips to Kruger National Park and other places where you can see animals in the wild, and I am simply amazed.

Knowing that I appreciate this type of thing, a friend informed me of a safari, called The Wilds, right here in Cumberland, Ohio. During a recent journey to visit family in New York, we stopped at the safari for a nice family-style adventure. It was quite an experience to travel with 40 other people for a two-and-half-hour trip through the vast pastures, on a very bumpy trail, in an open-air bus. The children thoroughly enjoyed getting up close with camels, giraffes, and rhinoceroses.

As we continued our trip to New York, I had time to reflect on what really makes human beings different from the animals that we saw. We were all created by the same Creator, and we all eat, sleep, and procreate. There are many smart, strong, and courageous animals. They love and care for – and are ready to fight for – their children. So, what is it that really defines the human being?

I reminded myself of a Chassidic teaching that I learned as a child, on the verse, “G-d made man upright” (Ecclesiastes 7:29). The unique superiority of mankind – toward whom G-d showed His kindness in making humans walk upright – lies in this: Even though he treads upon the earth, he sees the heavens. A four-legged creature, by contrast, mainly sees the earth.

The human being was created with a higher mission and purpose. We must live with spiritual purpose and meaning. It is a mission and purpose greater than ourselves: that of making this world a dwelling place and home for our Creator. 

We all know the saying, “There is no place like home.” “Home” is a place where I can be myself and express myself as I am, without conforming to the standards of the host. The world, in its current existence, allows for G-d Almighty to visit but not to truly dwell there. Through our acts of goodness and kindness, we change that perspective and refine the world until there is an awakening of the true reality: This world is not a jungle, where two-legged animals roam free. Rather, it is a garden for G-d Almighty to be revealed in and enjoyed through the work of man.

There is, however, another significant difference between humans and animals (after all, kangaroos, birds, and some primates also walk primarily on two legs). Animals – and, truth be told, even angels – are not given free choice to decide their future and way of life. Other than physically aging throughout their lives, they largely remain the way they were created. We humans were given the divine ability to choose goodness over bad and right over wrong. The circumstances that each individual is born into are different and not in our control, but what we do with our circumstances are in our control, and we are held accountable for our decisions.

In kabbalah it is explained that each Jewish person has inside of them two distinct souls. There is the G-dly soul, which yearns to connect to the Creator through learning His Torah and performing His commandments (mitzvos). Then there is the animal soul, which desires instant gratification and pleasure. The animal soul sees the world the way an animal does: What can the other person or object do to help me in my pursuit of my success and pleasure? It is a constant war in which the person himself – or herself – is the ultimate judge. We get to choose to live as if we are animals in the safari jungle or to live humanly, in the garden of spiritual opportunity. 

Anyone for a trip to the zoo?

Shabbat Shalom!

You can email Rabbi Gerson Avtzon at  lessonsinlife@americanisraelite.com.

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