Of Insects and Men
Rashi begins his commentary to this week’s parsha by noting that the
halachos related to the tumah and taharah of humans begin in Parshas
Tazria – after those of the animal kingdom were listed previously in
Parshas Shmini. This order would seem to defy logic, as one would think
that the halachos related to humans ought to have been placed before those
of the other living beings.
Rashi quotes a Midrash, where Rav Simlai explains the reasoning behind
this sequence. He maintains that in listing halachos, Hashem followed the
order of creation – beginning with all the members of the animal kingdom
(who were created first) and concluding with man (who was created last).
The Midrash quoted by Rashi finishes with an additional thought. If we
fulfill the ratzon of Hashem, says the Midrash, it is as if the world was
created on our behalf, and we were therefore created last so that we would
arrive to a ‘finished’ world. If we ignore the laws of the Torah, we are
informed that even the lowly ‘yitush’ – a form of insect – was created
This Midrash and the commentary of Rashi, however, seem to leave us with
more questions than answers. First of all, what is the meaning of the
Midrash regarding the insects preceding man in creation – and why was
the ‘yitush’ singled out among all other insects? Finally, why should the
Torah follow the order of creation when listing the halachos of tumah and
The primacy – and responsibility – of man
Many meforshim note that the cryptic words of the Midrash are commenting
on the role of man in the creation of the world. Humans are essentially
offered a choice. If we follow the laws of the Torah, then we become the
central focus of creation. After all, Hashem created this world so that we
can serve Him and elevate our neshamos (souls). When one lives a spiritual
life, and fulfills Hashem’s master plan, he or she brings meaning to the
world and all facets of creation. This would be analogous to a customer
who walks into a restaurant and sits down to a delicious meal – with all
the cooking and preparing done on his behalf. In this scenario, this
elevated form of man, whose neshamah rules over his body, arrived last on
the scene during b'rias ha’olam to signify that the world was created with
his service of Hashem in mind.
The Midrash continues with the logical corollary of this reasoning. It
states that if one does not fulfill the master plan of Hashem, he is no
better than any of the other living creatures that populate the Earth. The
moser ha’Adam min ha’behemah, the superiority of man over animal (Koheles
3:19, tefilah of Yom Kippur), lies in our ability to control our impulses
and harness our energies to a greater purpose. Delaying gratification and
harnessing desires are qualities of the human race to the exclusion of
nearly all other living beings. Failure to exercise these abilities blurs
the distinction between man and the members of the animal kingdom.
I would like to suggest that there is great significance in the fact that
the Midrash selected the ‘yitush’ as the example of animal life. While
telling the story of the destruction of the Beis Hamikdosh and the demise
of the wicked Titus, the gemorah (Gittin 56b) relates an interesting
detail about the yitush. It is a peculiar form of insect, which consumes
its food, but does not pass its waste. It therefore has a short life span,
as it grows bloated and dies.
Upon reflection, our mission in life is strikingly similar to our
digestive system. Healthy living in the physical realm requires us to
carefully select our food and plan our meals. Then, after we partake in a
meal, our digestive system filters our food, stores the nutrients in the
appropriate sections of our bodies, and passes the waste products.
In the spiritual plane, as well, we need to carefully screen
our ‘inboxes’ – what we look at and listen to. We need to extract the good
and meaningful things of this world and ‘delete the files’ that hinder our
growth. Failure to do so results in the spiritual equivalent of
the ‘yitush’ – the demise of one’s neshomah that becomes choked by
overindulgence in worldly matters.
The Midrash is reminding us to live meaningful lives. We are not angels –
nor were we created to live like them. We need to eat, drink and sleep
properly. The Torah mandates that we nurture our bodies; that we exercise
and refrain from activities that harm them. During our lifetime, it is our
sacred mission to have a healthy spiritual digestive system as well – to
extract the sparks of ruchniyus that are inherent in all areas of our
lives, and remove the harmful elements. Doing so will result in an
elevated living that places us in our proper position as the final element
of creation – and the raison d'être for Hashem’s beautiful world.
Text Copyright © 2007 by Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz and Torah.org.
Rabbi Horowitz is the founder and dean of Yeshiva Darchei Noam in Monsey, NY, as well as the founder and Program Director of Agudath Israel's Project Y.E.S. (Youth Enrichment Services), which helps at-risk teens and their parents. He is a popular lecturer on teaching and parenting topics in communities around the world, and is the author of several best-selling parenting tape and CD sets. For more information on Rabbi Horowitz's parenting tapes, visit http://www.rabbihorowitz.com/ or call 845-352-7100 X 133.