Me’at mei-Elohim: We are divine animals

10 TISHREI / OCTOBER 9, 2019

At the very end of Yom Kippur,
before we hear the final call of the shofar,
we will chant the words:
וּמוֹתַר הָאָדָם מִן הַבְּהֵמָה אָיִן
Humans are the same as animals.
We are no greater than beasts.

In 1940, after fleeing Nazi rule in Germany
to live in exile in London,
prominent 20th century rabbi,
Abraham Joshua Heschel, wrote these words:
“Left to his own devices,
man reveals himself as a bundle of drives.
Left to his own devices, he becomes an animal.
Even reason isn’t able to preserve his dignity.
He willingly becomes degraded to a creature of drives
that knows nothing more than its libido,
to a creature that knows no freedom
and is the slave of material or social factors.
It has finally reached the point
where one can no longer distinguish
a human from other living beings.”
(In This Hour: Heschel’s Writings in Nazi Germany and London Exile, p.10)

For the Jewish community in North America,
this was true not yet one year ago, on October 27, 2018,
when an animal, a creature of drives, a human being
came into the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh,
shot and killed 11 people—
may their memories be for a blessing—
and injured six others.
And, too, an attack took place at a synagogue
just earlier today in Eastern Germany,
where two people were murdered.

וּמוֹתַר הָאָדָם מִן הַבְּהֵמָה אָיִן
There are many ways that we humans are animals,
capable of becoming “creatures of our drives.”
Surely, in our fear, in our hunger, in our frustrations,
in our revenge, in our territorialism, in our defensiveness—
we are capable of living out the worst of our animal nature,
as has been true countless times across our collective history.

Yet, our animal nature is surely an invaluable part of who we are
when we must protect and defend ourselves.

Over this year,
JCOGS, as with many Jewish institutions across the U.S.,
has taken on a number of important security measures
to help protect ourselves.

Late in June, a sizable group of JCOGS members,
participated in a training,
now commonplace in public schools across the country,
to learn how to best react if, G-d forbid,
an active shooter came to our building.
The Stowe Police Department showed us
how to use our own animal instincts for our survival:
to counter by throwing things at the intruder,
to alert people to the crisis at hand,
to run away if at all possible,
and to fight back as a last resort.
Where many came to the training feeling scared,
every participant left feeling empowered.

It is not our animal instincts in and of themselves,
but the circumstances as to when we use them,
and the actions and outcomes
that make the difference.
Nor is our animal nature only about survival and defense.
Those of us with loving pets know that affection
is not an exclusive human trait.
Animals, including wildlife, contribute to our love and awe of the world,
and to our ecosystem’s diversity and beauty.

Yet, something important distinguishes us from our animal ancestors.
As a Jewish people, as humans,
we believe that there is more to us than our animal instincts.

When we declare at the end of Yom Kippur
וּמוֹתַר הָאָדָם מִן הַבְּהֵמָה אָיִן
that we are no greater than animals,
we follow those words with:
אתה הבדלת אנוש מראש
Yet from the beginning You distinguished human beings.
Humans have something unique within us.

In the words of the Psalmist:
מָֽה־אֱנ֥וֹשׁ כִּֽי־תִזְכְּרֶ֑נּוּ וּבֶן־אָ֝דָם כִּ֣י תִפְקְדֶֽנּוּ׃
What is humanity that You have been mindful of us,
mortals that You have taken note of us,
that You have made us מְּ֭עַט מֵאֱלֹהִ֑ים little less than divine,
and crowned us with glory and grandeur? (Psalm 8:5-6)

מְּ֭עַט מֵאֱלֹהִ֑ים / Me’at mei-Elohim,
humans are just a little less than divine.

In Rabbi Heschel’s words,
the nature that sets us humans apart from other creatures
is our relationship to Spirit, ruach, soul.
“Never was the Spirit been more distant than it is today,”
he wrote in 1940.
“We are preserved neither by blood nor earth,
neither money nor the state—but by Spirit.” (p.12)
The Spirit is “guided by only one essential characteristic:
that we are made in G-d’s image,
the highest attribute that has ever been claimed for humankind.” (p.10)

For Heschel, we approach Spirit by embracing our aspirational values.
“Humanity’s essence is to strive toward values…
The path to values, to peace,
and to the integrity of the individual
is through love.” (p.18)

We humans are ever caught in the thicket
between our animal and human nature.
Fearing, being angry, wanting revenge,
feeling a visceral, primordial response—
none of these are inherently bad.
The feelings themselves are as much human as they are animal.
What distinguishes us is what happens from there;
how we respond to those feelings;
and whether we embrace our divine nature.
We have greater aspirations than survival alone.

Immediately after the Pittsburgh attack happened,
we held a vigil with prayer and sacred words
to mourn the lives lost.
And then one month later,
we gathered 150 JCOGS and greater community members together
on stage at the Spruce Peak Performing Arts Center
to sing a song of love; to increase the light among us.

In Heschel’s words:
“The task of Judaism…
and its true help to the nations
is to make the voice of the Spirit speak.” (p.11)
“To make the voice of the Spirit (sing).”

If that is our ultimate task,
why, then, do we humans so often mess it up?
Why do we act on our most base urges?

How many of you this past year on a personal level
have gotten irritable or overly angry at a loved one
simply because you hadn’t eaten recently?
We call that hangry
that most dangerous human combination of hungry and angry.
What happens to your body when you endure some added stress?
Some perceived overwhelm or attack?

We are human.
We get irritable, overly passionate,
we act on primordial urges all of the time—
we stuff our faces at a meal, only to regret it later,
we can be greedy and brazen,
we react impulsively and hastily,
we lust after that which is not ours.

For me in our family,
I feel these instincts most acutely
when one of our kids deliberately hurts the other,
particularly when it is one of the older ones
hurting one who is younger.
My anger swells
and my instincts of protection and defense kick in.

These animal urges do not only play out
in our familial and interpersonal lives,
but in our collective society as well.
Our collective stresses and response to those stresses
are only growing.

Today, we are constantly reacting to a barrage of crises—
on the national and international stage.
Hearing and experiencing what is happening in our world—
ours is an era of great tumult and change.

Pursued by our own fear,
across the many issues that confront us,
our world is caught in that tension
between our animal and divine nature.
As your rabbi, in the face of our collective turmoil,
I have heard you speak of your agitation.

When those primal instincts kick in,
what then? How do we respond?

Yom Kippur itself offers us a way
to transcend our urges, to reach for our Spirits.
Today, we are on a journey,
taking small steps towards our divine nature.
On Yom Kippur,
we do not avoid our animal nature.
We embrace it so that we might transcend it.

We strip our lives down to the barest, animalistic essentials,
neglecting some basic needs and urges—
no food, no drink, no showers, no sex.
By actively setting up these conditions
that set us on edge on Yom Kippur,
we are admitting that we have animalistic urges,
so that we can be aware of and transcend them,
so that we can use them to our own spiritual benefit.
By not eating, for instance, we elevate our hangry tendencies,
and face our animal nature,
rather than running away from it.

This day-long ritual signals to our bodies, hearts, and minds
that we’ve got nothing left to lose.
An animal, on its own in the wild,
searching for nourishment and seeking spiritual survival.

When we reach those moments of stress today, or anyday—
take notice. Be self-aware.
Take a moment amidst the intensity of our lives to consider:
What’s happening within us?
What are the conditions that brought us to this moment?
How do we reach for Spirit and help others do the same?
We must transform the very base emotions that drive underneath.

Yom Kippur is our test and opportunity
to practice being aware of our animal tendencies
without letting them rule over us.
Yet, even as we do so,
we give our greater attention to what elevates us.
Today, we engage in
prayer, music, poetry, singing, Spirit.
Interesting, we do not turn to logic or reason.
We turn to activities
that physically, neurologically change our patterns—
from animal to Spirit.
We spend time reflecting
on what is most important to us.
We reach out with empathy to others.
We mend relationships that have been strained along the way.
We see ourselves and each other as created in the image of G-d.

Judaism asks us to continuously and daily bring Spirit into our lives,
through prayer, reflection, learning, and communal life,
through compassion, forgiveness, “peace…integrity…and love.”
Thus, when the animal urge arises within us,
we have the tools to embrace and transcend it.

This spiritual work begins in our own hearts and minds,
and in our familial and interpersonal lives.
And it extends to all realms of our society.

Even in the most fraught moments
in our own personal lives and in our society at large—
and perhaps in those moments more than ever—
we are called upon
to transcend our base instincts—
to not let our fears, our territorialism,
our biases and hatred rule us,
and instead we are called upon
to be driven by our divine nature.

More often than not,
we pretend that we are not animals
or try to ignore the fact that it is part of our nature.
Yet not long ago in the scope of history, we were hunter/gatherers.
We still share 98.7% of our DNA with apes.

There are times that those instincts matter,
that defending and preserving ourselves as animals
can make us more human.
Yet, what of the rest of our lives?
We are imbued with a spirit nature.
We are ever called to embrace
מְּ֭עַט מֵאֱלֹהִ֑ים our little less than divine qualities.

Let us take a deep breath in those moments,
and return to ourselves,
return to what is most important to us.

Oh G-d of All of Our Ancestors,
we ask forgiveness of You for our all-too-reactionary-ways,
and our dominance and submission of others.
Help us preserve our human dignity,
what distinguishes us from all other living creatures.
Spirit of this Universe,
teach us to embrace and transcend the animal within us,
that we might seek out the sparks of holy life
you have planted within us.
Guide us to hear the voice of the Spirit,
and to bring that voice to others—
to our families, our communities, our societies, our world.

G’mar Chatima Tova, may we all be inscribed in the Book of Life.