David Walk
David Walk

What kind of beast is man

Please, take a look at my title up there. That question can mean so many different things depending how one says it or how it’s punctuated. Put an exclamation mark (or two) behind it or say it as part of a conversation about a concentration camp Kommandant, and it’s a strong condemnation of our species. Place a question mark, and ask it in context of discussing an empathetic nurse encountered during a difficult hospital visit. It’s become an expression of how wonderful humanity can be. Well, we have a slightly similar conundrum in Psalm 8. 

This remarkable literary analysis of the status of humanity is the Psalm for the day on Simchat Torah according to the Vilna Gaon, and Rav Steinzaltz OB”M wrote that there’s a custom to recite it on Shabbat Breishit. Both are reasonable, because it can be understood as a commentary on the creation of man in the first chapter of Breishit. 

Many commentaries on this chapter see the ten verses as split into 3 sections. The first (verses 1-3) is seen as a paean to the greatness of God and Divine justice. The middle (4-5) is a comment on the smallness of mankind in the big cosmic picture. Finally, we have a description of the exalted position of people in this world. I would prefer to see just two parts: the first glorifying God (verses 1-4), the second (6-10) recognizing the superiority of humans in the realm. While the famous question in verse 5 is the transition between the two parts: What are human beings that you think about them; what are human beings that you pay attention to them? 

In this verse, humans are described with two expressions: ENOSH and B’NAI ADAM. They are paired together often in Biblical poetry. The first is seen as an expression of humanity’s humble status. Some Rabbinic sources see it as an oblique reference to Enosh, grandson of Adam, in Parshat Breishit, because he invented idolatry. The second phrase, B’NAI ADAM, is understood to describe our mortality. Only the mortal must procreate, and can be described as offspring of another human. 

The praises of God, in verse four, describe the wonders of the heavens. We have a depiction of the stars and moon, but no sun. The night sky in the pre-Edison world was indeed impressive, but what happened to the Sun in our verse? Clearly, this description is written by King David, the erstwhile shepherd, at night. With the bright dawn, we ask about the place of humanity, which looks impressive, but only in the daylight. We Homo Sapiens clearly rule over this realm, for good and for bad. We are masters of all animals, both domestic and wild. The answer to the question about humanity’s place in the Creation is that we are ‘little less than angels, and crowned with glory and grandeur’ (verse 6). 

We have two descriptions of our universe. One has humanity standing by on the periphery; the other has mankind in the middle of all the action. Once we ask the question about the position of our race, we can then look around and give a satisfactory answer: We are Masters of this world. 

It’s no wonder that according to the Midrash verse 5 of our Psalm was the question of the angels when Moshe Rabbeinu came to heaven to receive the Torah (TB Shabbat 88b), ‘What business has one born of woman among us?’ The celestial beings are flabbergasted when God says that Moshe has come to take God’s most precious gift, the Torah, to earth. Finally, Moshe responds that the Torah was written for humankind, not angels. We, therefore, have an important place in this Creation, and are, indeed, connected to, but lonely than, Divinity. 

Our beautiful poem begins and ends with the same refrain: Lord, our Master, how majestic (‘mighty’, ADIR) is Your name throughout the earth! In other words, if we look at Creation from the perspective of heaven and earth under the power of God (verses 1-4), God is amazing. However, even when we look at this realm and see the honored position of mankind, ascendant over this world, we’re still in thrall of God, Who brought this all to be, and assigned this role to humanity. 

When I look at this amazing analysis of Creation, I find one word to be most critical: TIFKIDENU (last word verse 5). This term is usually translated as ‘visit them’, or ‘be mindful of them’. But Rav Shimshon Rephael Hersch points out that the root PEH, KUF, DALET denotes an assignment or a role. The greatest gift, and trial, of mankind is how we accept this role of developing a position of grandeur on planet Earth. It’s good to be the King, but there are obligations and burdens attached.  

If we accept our blessings from God to rule this realm as merely a privilege, then there will be trouble for all Creation. If we see this as a responsibility, then peace, prosperity and blessing have a chance.  

Our Psalm is really a challenge. God has given us the potential for greatness. How do we view this gracious boon? It’s like the famous story of the Kotzker who was said to keep two slips of paper in his pockets. Upon one was written: I am nothing but dust and ashes (Breishit 18:27). The great expression of humility of Avraham Avinu. The other had the companion idea: The world was created for me (Talmud, Sanhedrin 37b). We need both humility and high self-esteem to succeed. This poem presents that dichotomy, both beautifully and profoundly. 

As we begin the Torah cycle again, how do we read the text? Is it a just remarkable story to enjoy? A history? A legal text? All of the above, but mostly it’s a roadmap, and a challenge. King David helped us begin the new Torah reading in the proper state of mind. One in which we are a wonderful, marvelous ‘beast’, full of potential. 

 

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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