Meat was forbidden to Adam…When the sons of Noach came along, Hashem permitted it to them.
“And the sun rose for him [Yaakov] as he passed Penu’el.” R. Akiva said, I asked Rabban Gamliel and R. Yehoshua in the meat market of Ima’um, where they had gone to buy an animal for the wedding celebration of Rabban Gamliel’s son: Did the sun rise only for Yaakov? Surely it rose for the entire world! R. Yitzchok said, the sun that had set [early] on account of him now rose [early] on account of him.
In recent times, we have seen the rise of a movement of enlightened people, who have foresworn the eating of meat. G-d created both Man and animals. Why should we assume that it is specifically Man’s spirit that ascends on high? Who or what gives Man the right to subjugate all of Creation, and to take the life of an animal for his own pleasure?
Chazal do not disagree! They tell us that it is, in fact, forbidden for the genuinely ignorant to eat meat. Their agreement, however, is limited to those people whose stature and goals are not very different from that of animals. Those people look at themselves and see just another creature who can and should be respectfully sharing the biosphere with other creatures. The gemara states that Man was created at the end of the six days of Creation so that his arrogance could be tempered. When he would attribute excessive importance to himself, it could be pointed out that the lowly gnat had established itself on earth well before he came into existence. This argument can only work for those who see themselves as fellow travelers on earth alongside others in the animal kingdom.
Other people are not as comfortable with sharing the turf – or sharing importance. They recognize Hashem’s mission for them – something no animal can do. They understand that the world is neither random nor without purpose; by submitting to His Will, they help bring about the goal of Creation. Those people can look back at the six days of Creation and take pride in having been created last. Everything that preceded them was meant to assist them in accomplishing their G-d given tasks. Man is the end point of Creation; everything else is part of the backdrop, part of the toolbox intended for Man’s use. The “natural” world serves the needs of purposes that transcend nature.
How are we to tell to which group a person belongs? We can speculate that one way is to determine if the natural world that is meant to support Man sometimes must bow to his needs. If the expected order of things changes upon occasion to assist or save him, we can assume that he is part of the group that is meant to constructively dominate it, to make full use of everything around him.
Perhaps this is the significance of the passage about purchasing an animal for the wedding feast of Rabban Gamliel’s son. It dawned upon these great talmidei chachamim that their plan to feed their large guest list would involve directly taking the life of an animal. They began to question their assumptions: Why do we take it for granted that the lives of animals are fully available to us to do as we please? Are we not being presumptuous in assuming that we belong to the group of perfected individual who stand at the top of the pyramid of creation?
R. Yitzchok offered a litmus test. Can it be that the sun, the engine of the natural world, shines for a Yaakov and not for everyone else? Yes, indeed, offered R. Yitzchok. Because it was important for Yaakov to abruptly stop his travels that evening, the sun set early. Nature changed its course, bent itself out of its usual shape, to accommodate Yaakov’s particular circumstances. If the sun could set for him, then when it rose and shone, it should be seen as working for him in a way that it does not for others.
We can easily identify the very first person since the sin of Adam and Chavah whose needs forced Nature to bend and change. Noach, who found favor in the eyes of Hashem, was protected and saved miraculously. It should not be surprising, then, that it was Noach’s family that was first given the license to eat meat, i.e., to assert its dominance over the animal kingdom, and not to look upon animals as roommates in the same residence.
The same distinction applies to nations. Most conduct themselves according to rules that can be considered natural. Significantly, Hashem did not enter into a covenant with the nations of the world regarding the Seven Noahide Laws. He didn’t have to. Those mitzvos create societal stability, and are part of Man’s nature. (Even the exceptions, like the prohibition against idolatry, really serve as guarantor’s of Man’s obedience to the basic laws of human conduct.) Non-Jews are not commanded in affirmative obligations like chesed. As valuable as it is, a stable society is possible without it – but not when the prohibitions of the Seven Laws are violated.
Klal Yisrael, on the other hand, was instructed to live beyond the natural. Chazal see a reference to the Jewish nation in the word bereishis, understanding it to mean “for the sake of Yisrael, which is called reishis/ first.” The giving of the Torah to Klal Yisrael was indeed a first for mankind. It was the beginning of the progress of Man beyond the purely natural. Klal Yisrael was the first group to view the world illuminated by a Divine light; to declare the oneness of G-d; to be devoted to the pursuit of Divine truth, rather than the truths of Nature. This focus is not built into Man’s nature. It did require a special covenant.
Jews, then, are left with two roles. Together with all other people, they are required to be guardians of human progress, and the maintenance of human society. Additionally, they are required to live up to the expectations of their special covenant with G-d, taking His goals and purposes into the world.
Two different kinds of Divine punishment are described in Tanach. One kind is focused and deliberate: “with anger, with wrath, and with great fury.” Another kind speaks of Hashem simply hiding His countenance.
It would seem that when a Jew ignores only his special obligation to G-d, Hashem reacts with hester panim, i.e. He withdraws His special providential protection. If, however, the Jew fails not only in his special, Jewish role, but violates the expectations placed upon all human beings, then Hashem comes after him with great fury.
When Noach set sail, it was not just to escape the raging floodwaters. He began the journey of refusal to be limited to the natural, a journey faithfully continued by Klal Yisrael. Thus, our history is replete with dramatic interventions by HKBH, no different, really, from what saved Noach.