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Harambe or Isaiah?

Friday, 3 June, 2016 - 1:07 pm

A petition entitled Justice for Harambe has garnered nearly half a million signatures.  By no stretch of the imagination, this silverback gorilla has caught the imagination of the world, certainly of America.  He was tragically shot and killed on May 28 after a child fell into the gorilla’s enclosure. There’s lots of debate about how it happened and why it happened, but the facts are that after the child was dragged around by the gorilla and the gorilla did not respond to zookeepers’ efforts to withdraw from the child, the gorilla was shot.

I wasn’t there, and I’m no animal expert, so I can’t responsibly say what should have been done. Suffice it to say that according to Jewish law, if there is even a reasonable chance that the child’s life was in danger, human life comes first.

What has surprised me most about this episode is not the outcry against the mother, or toward the zoo. Rather, it’s how we as a society are animated to action when something sensational happens.  Hundreds of animals die each day in interactions with humans. Many humans die daily in interactions with animals. Many humans die each day at the hands of other humans.

Where is the outcry against the loss of human life? Compare the Justice for Harambe petition to the Justice for Tamir Rice petition, which has less than a third the amount of signatures.  That was an unfortunate accident, or a hate crime perpetrated by police – depending on how we the jury of public opinion would like to interpret events at which we weren’t present. Regardless, it was clearly tragic. As always is the loss of human life.

Human life is sacred.

So, we are forced to ask the powerful question: what differentiates a human from an animal?

There are many perspectives to this and I will begin with a basic introduction. Human life is sacred not simply because of the advantages of the human race over other living beings.  We are created in the image of G-d and therefore even the least productive human being is invaluable.  Period.

The conversation could end there. But, because we humans are also entrusted with caring for G-d’s world, we must understand the practical differences between humans and animals.

Perhaps, the parsha, Bechukosai, can teach us a thing or two about this. The Torah informs us that if we adhere to the commandments of Almighty G-d, then, “I will remove wild beasts from the land.”

According to the Midrash, this blessing will come to fruition in the messianic era. Rabbi Shimon maintains that G-d will neutralize the aggressive instinct of wild animals, as Isaiah prophesies, “the wolf will lie with the lamb.”

In other words, in G-d’s perfect world lions, gorillas and wolves will exist. But their predatory and untamed behavior will disappear.  They will be docile.

Both nowadays and in the miraculous times of Moshiach, animals are and will be programmed by G-d to behave in a certain fashion.  No one blames Harambe for what he did. He’s a gorilla after all.  Human behavior, however, we can debate, because we are responsible for our actions.

So, it isn’t aggressiveness or docility that separates humans and animals. Rather, it is the ability to make choices. 

We also have an animal nature within us. It may wish to destroy and plunder. It may wish to indulge and be stubborn. It is capable of wreaking all types of havoc.  But, we also have a mind and a soul. The Divine part of us knows better. It is also capable of controlling our animalistic instincts.

When faced with choices, we can either be human or animalistic.  Perhaps the Torah’s message to you and I is that we too can remove wild beasts from within our own personal domain.  We have a beast inside, but we can domesticate it. We can – and must – control it. Furthermore, we can channel its energy and passion for goodness.

If we take this lesson from Harambe and Isaiah, perhaps the uproar can prove positive.

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