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A Uniquely Human Attribute

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

The various holidays that are celebrated throughout the year are mentioned concisely in Leviticus Chapter 23. For this reason this section of the Torah was chosen to be read publicly from the Torah on many holidays. The curious thing about this is that rather than beginning the reading with this chapter, we begin the reading with the last seven verses of the previous chapter. The first verse we read states ‘When a Shor (ox) or a Chesev (sheep) or an Eiz (goat) is born, it shall remain under its mother for seven days, and from the eighth day onwards, it shall be accepted as a sacrifice for a fire offering to the Lord.’ Why do we begin with these verses that seemingly have no direct connection with the holidays?

The Zohar, our central Kabbalistic text authored by Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, points out that this verse seems to be written incorrectly. In the Hebrew language there are specific terms that distinguish an adult animal from a younger animal. For example a young ox is referred to as an Eigel (calf) as opposed to an adult ox which is called a Shor. A younger sheep is called a Tle (lamb) whereas an adult is called Chesev. A younger goat is called a Gedi (kid) whereas an older goat is called an Eiz. Why then did the Torah not choose accurate language,, a calf is born and not an ox, a lamb is born and not a sheep, a kid is born and not a goat?

The Zohar explains that the Torah is teaching us a fundamental difference between a human being and an animal. The human being is capable of growing spiritually through studying Torah, character development and good deeds. On the other hand animals are essentially the same spiritually at the end of their lives as they were at birth. That is why the Torah refers to a calf as an ox, to a lamb as a sheep and to a kid as a goat. We begin each holiday with the following challenge: Will we grow through this holiday? Will we use it to learn, pray and do good deeds? Will we rise to the human challenge of growth and change?

The Maharal of Prague explains the name given to human kind in a similar fashion. Both humans and animals were created from the earth as described in the book of Genesis, so why is it that only humans are called Adam, meaning earth? Maharal explains that the earth represents pure potential. If one ploughs, plants and waters earth, beautiful crops result. But if one does not work the earth, it remains desolate. Earth is simply potential, and so, too, is the human being simply growth potential.

Let us embrace our humanity by growing, learning and challenging ourselves to reach our full potential!