Sandra never knew freedom. She was born in captivity into a group of people that treated her like an animal, keeping her in a cage, and feeding her not much more than bottles of milk and vegetable scraps. Being caged and given no motherly nurturing during the formative years of her life had a deep psychological effect on Sandra. She never quite learned how to talk, instead for the rest of her life she could do no more than simply makes grunting sounds and the occasional screech. 

When she was about five, her owners sold her to some people in Argentina. They packed her into a padded shipping crate, stuffed her in the cargo section of an airplane, and sent her on a 7,000 mile journey halfway around the world. Life did not get any easier in Buenos Aires. There too she was put in a cage, and schoolchildren and sometimes even adults would stroll by her cage, and stop to look at her, yell at her, laugh at her, and sometimes throw food at her. 

In Buenos Aires, she fell into a deep depression. Sometimes she wouldn’t even eat the vegetable scraps they threw at her. Instead, she would pace around her cage for hours grunting, snorting, and endlessly pulling fleas from her hair. 

It wasn’t until she was twenty nine years old that someone finally took notice of her plight. A group of caring and loving people saw her in her shameful and abusive conditions and vowed to free her. First they attacked her abusers in the press and media, but the general public didn’t seem to mind. They felt that Sandra had been in that condition for so long that she didn’t deserve any better. 

A few years back, the group and its lawyers filed suit with Argentina’s Federal Chamber of Criminal Cassation, asking the court to ensure that Sandra finally be freed. After a few months of deliberation and process, the court finally ruled in their favor, and Sandra will be set free. 

You might wonder why it took twenty nine years to free Sandra from her horrific mistreatment, so this clue might help: Sandra is an orangutan. The people who have been keeping her in a cage are the zookeepers. And the people committed to freeing her belong to Argentina’s Association of Professionals Lawyers for Animal Rights. 

Sandra’s win in court is a landmark win, as it is the first time that a court has granted an animal rights on the grounds that it was a “non-human person.” The lawyers filed a habeas corpus petition on behalf of Sandra, a measure which is normally used to challenge the imprisonment or detention of a “human person.” This was not the first time this was tried. A group of lawyers tried to sue for Tommy, a chimpanzee in NY, and in 2011 PETA sued Sea World claiming that its five orcas were being used as slaves. Both prior attempts were thrown out of court, but not this time. 

Animal rights advocates round the world rejoiced upon hearing of the ruling in Buenos Aires, as they hope it will set a precedent for more rights for other non-human persons, whom they believe should have the same rights as human persons. They are quick to point out that chimpanzees and orangutans are more than 96% genetically identical to human beings. Furthermore, one can clearly detect them experiencing human-like emotions. (Anyone who has ever owned a dog will tell you that they too experience joy, sadness, loneliness, anger, fear, and a host of other emotions.) 

But the truth is that this is a really complicated subject and slippery slope. Which species get determined as Higher Apes that deserve human-like protections, and which species get Lower Ape status? And forget apes for a moment, cows are 80% genetically identical to humans, does this mean that we shouldn’t be able to eat them? Mice are 90% genetically identical to humans, does this mean that we shouldn’t use them to experiment with life savings drugs (the incredibly increased lifespan of the human race which was fueled by modern medicine came largely through testing of mice)? 

Complicating things further, extensive studies conducted by Sig Jagdish Chandra Bose in India, Marcel Vogel in California, and by Dr. Alexander P. Dubrov in the USSR confirmed that plants have some level of feelings as well! Their experiments show cabbage cringing in pain as it gets boiled (confirmed by bio-electrical impulses), ferns responding to the emotions of people in the room, and many other affective responses to human stimuli. Plants might just be the Non-Humans that deserve rights somewhere in the future! At that point, if you don’t want to offend any living thing, you might just have to eat crushed rocks for dinner every night! 

How does Judaism view Non-Human Persons? Does the Torah recognize the unique qualities of certain animals over others? Does the Torah allow for certain human rights to be bestowed upon any animals?

The Torah, in describing the creation of animals, says (Genesis 1:24): “G-d said, “Let the earth bring forth living soul, each according to its kind…” When describing mankind, it also says (Genesis 2:7), “And Ha-shem G-d formed the man of soil from the earth, and blew into his nostrils the soul of life, and man became a living soul…” This tells us that there are some similarities between man and beast. But the major difference between animal and man in that only man was fashioned in the tselem Elokim, the Image of G-d, and only mankind was given a breath of life from G-d Himself. 

As Rashi explains (Genesis 2:7), “Animal and beast, too, were called ‘living soul,’ but this soul of man is the most alive of the all, for there was added to it the faculties of reasoning and speech.” Indeed if you were to ever make a lineup of all the zoo animals and a human being, and then ask someone to identify which species built a skyscraper 2,722 feet tall, I don’t think it would take anyone too long to identify the one who has the added faculties of reason and speech, the one which built in the image of a limitless G-d. The lion may be the king of the beast but he still hasn’t figured out how to make a sandwich let alone build a tube that can float around the world 40,000 feet above the surface, while serving salted almonds, Kind bars, and diet Coke.

The purpose of this point is not to degrade animals, or condone mistreatment of animals, G-d forbid! As a matter of fact, the Torah is the first historical source of laws showing sensitivity to animals (you can’t eat until you feed your animal, you’re required to assist not just your friend, but even your enemy unload his donkey if it’s painfully buckling under its load, etc.). I am not here to opine on the question of whether we should have zoos or not, whether they cause enough discomfort to the animals to outweigh the benefit that people gain by being able to go to one place and see so much of the wonder of G-d’s creations. The purpose here is to recognize that despite being genetically similar to the orangutan, the mouse, and the bovine, we humans are a quantum leap ahead of them in terms of potential and purpose in this world. 

We alone were endowed by our creator with a soul that is in the image of G-d Himself. That gives us almost limitless potential, far above the potential of any animal, Higher Apes included. This is not only potential to create medicines that cure cancer and malaria, build skyscrapers that literally scrape the sky, or create rectangles we keep in our pocket that can have a video conversation with anyone around the world, and also order us cabs, shoes, or pizza. Our soul also gives us the capacity to make dinner for our neighbors who just had a baby, to give 10% of our income to others in need, to set aside a day each week for spiritual introspection, and to connect with our creator daily through mindful prayer. 

There may be many species of intelligent animals that deserve proper care and sensitivity, but there are no non-human persons, just as there should be no non-animal beasts. We have far too much potential to simply be the Highest of the Apes, we need to be quantum leaps ahead of any other species; qualitatively, if not genetically, entirely different that the beast. And that task of being quantum leaps ahead of the animal world, is the fun and challenge that makes life so rich and meaningful!

Parsha Dvar Torah

In this week’s parsha we read about how Joseph, now the viceroy of Egypt, reveals his true identity to his brothers. He then sends them back to Israel to their father Jacob, with the request that the whole family move down to Egypt where Joseph will be able to support them throughout the seven year famine. However part of the message that Joseph sends back to his father seems strange; “G-d has made me a lord over all of Egypt” (Gen 45:9).

Understandably, Joseph is trying to persuade his father to come down to Egypt, but does he think that telling his father of his vast power is going to impress Jacob? Does he think that Jacob will be more inclined to move his holy family to a country filled with materialistic pagans just because his son has a good job and lots of power?

Rabbi Yaakov Neiman (of blessed memory), answers this question with an important lesson. What Joseph was trying to show his father was not the great power he had, but his perspective on that great power. When the average person gets a raise or a promotion, they will usually attribute it to their boss, the Human Resources department, or more often, their own hard work. “I got the raise for closing a major deal.”

Joseph, on the other hand, shares none of these illusions. When he describes the incredible promotion he got, he makes it abundantly clear that he recognizes how he got his job. “G-d has made me a lord over all of Egypt” takes on a whole new meaning when we understand that the stress is on the first part of the sentence. Now Jacob would see that despite his meteoric rise to power and despite being immersed in a culture whose leaders usually made deities out of themselves, Joseph was able to maintain his faith and recognize that everything comes from G-d. Hopefully, once Jacob would see that one could retain their Jewish beliefs and perspectives in Egypt, he would be willing to move his family down to Egypt.

This message resonates today more than ever. People are being hired and fired, promoted and demoted in a chaotic economic environment the likes of which we have never seen before. It is important for us to recognize who is the Ultimate Boss, the One who really decides our career path, and Whom we should talk to when we need a bit of career help, or to give thanks for our success.

I have a close friend who truly exemplifies this idea. Six months ago, he joined one of the oldest and largest insurance companies in America. Since then he has devoted himself to his work with incredible zeal and has actually shattered all of the company’s records for an employee’s first six months. He has already won the coveted Rookie of the Year title, and will soon be going to the company’s annual conference where he will be awarded at the company dinner and given the honor of addressing thousands of employees in the industry. 

The other day (as he was trying to sell me another policy), we were talking about his upcoming trip and his speech. He told me that he not only plans on proudly wearing his kippah at the dinner, but that in his speech, plans on thanking G-d for his incredible success  and acknowledging that his accomplishments were possible only through G-d’s help. The Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of G-d’s name) that this speech will bring about is immeasurable. In a room filled with thousands of people whose motto is “In Green We Trust,” the most successful of them will remind everyone Who truly determines our success.

Our forefather Joseph blazed a pathway for us, teaching that, despite the prevailing culture’s perspective on success, we can maintain our perspective. We need to follow him down that road to the ultimate success; a life lived with an awareness of G-d and all He does for us!   

Parsha Summary

This week’s parsha, Vayigash, starts off at the charged moment where we left off last week. Yosef’s special silver goblet had been “found” in Binyamin’s sack, and he was hauled back to the palace to become a slave. The ten other brothers are not willing to see their brother taken. They follow him down, and stand to plea before Yosef. Notably, it is Yehuda who speaks with Yosef because he was the one who guaranteed Binyamin’s return. Yehuda launches into a long explanation as to why it is imperative that Binyamin be allowed to go back to his father. He explains that if Binyamin doesn’t return, their father is liable to die from the anguish. 

At this point, Yosef decides that it is the right time to reveal himself to his brothers so he orders all the Egyptians out of the room (so that they not witness the brothers’ humiliation upon realizing the enormity of what they had done). Then he says, “I am Yosef, is my father still alive?” The implication is – why were you not concerned with our father’s health when you sold me and let him think I was killed by a wild animal? The brothers were so disconcerted that they couldn’t speak. But Yosef was not one to rub salt in old wounds. As soon as he saw that his brothers were contrite, he consoled them, telling them that selling him was all part of a divine plan so that he would be able to support the family throughout the remaining years of the famine.

Yosef asks that his family come down to Egypt where he would provide them with fertile land and food. Pharaoh seconds the motion. Yosef sends the brothers back with bountiful supplies and special wagons which were symbolic of the last Torah lesson Ya’akov gave Yosef. These wagons were meant to show Ya’akov that Yosef was still on the straight and narrow. 

Ya’akov hears about Yosef’s situation, and he sees the wagons indicating his son’s spiritual position, and his spirit is revived. On the way down to Egypt, G-d comes to Ya’akov at night and tells him that He will be with him, and will make sure that his descendants come out of the land of Egypt. 

The Torah then recounts the lineage of Ya’akov’s progeny. It also mentions that Ya’akov sent Yehuda ahead of him to Goshen (possibly the first Jewish ghetto ever), the place the Jews inhabited in Egypt to set up a Yeshiva. He did this because he recognized that the only way the Jewish people would be able to maintain their Jewish identity in Egypt is if they have significant Jewish education, a realization that rings very true today.

Ya’akov and Yosef have a tearful reunion after a 22 year separation. At this momentous occasion, Ya’akov recites Shema, indicating that every joyous occasion should be experienced with G-d. When the family goes to meet Pharaoh, Yosef instructs his brothers to tell Pharaoh they are shepherds, as this way he will leave them alone (whereas had they told him they were warriors he would try to draft them). Pharaoh and Ya’akov share pleasantries and bless each other.

The parsha concludes by telling us how Yosef managed Egypt during the famine. He was the only person who had any grain, so everyone sold him their land. He told everyone they could have land as long as they moved (this way his family wouldn’t feel out of place when they settled in a new place), and that they had to give one fifth of their crops to the Pharaoh as tax. Back then they didn’t charge a Social Security tax, and today they shouldn’t either because there is very little likelihood that I’ll get the benefits by the time I retire, what with the S.S. crisis. But that’s a discussion for a different time. That’s all folks!

Quote of the Week: The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of the non-essentials. – Lin Yutang

Random Fact of the Week: The trunk of the African baobab tree can grow as large as 100 feet in circumference. 

Funny Line of the Week: The face of a child can say it all, especially the mouth part of the face!

Have a Nifty Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

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