Are People More Like Animals or Angels?

Posted on September 27, 2021

By Rabbi Alex Freedman

The secular scientist says to G-d, “Listen, G-d, we’ve decided we don’t need You
anymore. These days we can clone people and do all sorts of things that used to be
considered miraculous.”

G-d replied, “Don’t need Me, huh? Let’s see if You can make a human.”

“Fine,” says the scientist. He bends down to scoop up a handful of dirt.

“Stop!” says G-d. “Not so fast. Get your own dirt.”

The Book of Genesis is all about beginnings. Let’s take a closer look at G-d’s two
ingredients, as it were, for making humankind: “The L-rd G-d formed man from dust of
the earth – Afar Min HaAdamah – and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life –
Nishmat Hayim. So the human became a living being” (Gn. 2:7).

We see that humanity is formed from both lower matter – dirt – and upper matter – G-d’s
breath of life. As it turns out, this dual-origin of humanity is unique among creatures.
And this duality preserves a delicate balance in the universe.

Here is Rashi’s insight on our verse: “G-d made Adam from the lower world and the
upper world – a body from the lower with a soul from the upper.” In fact, this duality
exists in every day’s act of creation, highlighting the uniqueness of human beings.

Day 1. Shamayim Va’Aretz, Heaven and earth. Both upper and lower.
Day 2. The Rakia firmament in the skies. Upper.
Day 3. The dry land and the seas. Lower.
Day 4. The sun, moon, and stars. Upper.
Day 5. The sea animals. Lower.

How can one more product – humanity – be created while preserving this equilibrium
between upper and lower?

Day 6. Adam is created from dust of the earth – lower – and G-d’s breath of life – upper.
This unique fusion maintains the pristine balance, even as it highlights the uniqueness
of human beings.

What does it mean for humankind – then and now – to possess these two origins?
Let’s consider three ideas. The first is from Rashi himself. The lower part of the human
is the body. We are indeed composed of organic matter. While the upper part of the
human is the soul. Each of us is more than a body. We all have a Guf and Neshama, a
temporary body and an eternal soul. As the Etz Hayim Humash notes, “After death, the
body returns to the earth, its source, and the soul to G-d, its source.”

Second: People must take care of lower needs and higher needs. “Lower” needs
include the things we must do every day to survive: to eat and drink, to find clothing and
shelter, to sleep, to create families, to socialize, to do the things many other animals do.
But life is about more than surviving. We must also attend to “higher” needs every day,
things unique to people: education, spirituality, community, ethics.

Third: Each of us has the capacity to be an animal or an angel. The range of human
potential spans from earth to heaven. Our individual actions can lower us to the level of
animals – dust of the earth – or elevate us to the level of angels – G-d’s breath of life.
Every day we are faced with choices, small or challenging. How do we respond?
When we make decisions – specifically challenging decisions – we place ourselves on
the ladder of humanity which ranges from contemptible to commendable. From low
character to high.

Are we humans born to be more like animals or angels? Both. To follow instinct or
ideals? Both. So let’s aim high.