This year, as the din of the many zoo sounds was slowly dying down, the idea
struck me that perhaps a deeper message underlies the seemingly comical
aspect of imitating the various animal sounds. The Mishna teaches us in
Pirkei Avos, "Be as bold as a leopard, as light as an eagle, as strong as a
lion and as swift as a deer, to do the will of your Father in heaven." This
dictum of the sages was incorporated by the author of the Shulchan Aruch as
his opening halacha. In its opening paragraph, the Shulchan Aruch exhorts us
to marshal all our energies in the service of the Divine, from the very
moment we arouse ourselves from sleep. Yet, why the analogy to animals? And
how are we to harness the strength of a lion and the boldness of a leopard
when serving our Creator? After all, compared to these mighty creatures, we
are puny mortals, unequipped with the strength, swiftness or boldness that
crowns these beasts. How is it possible to emulate them?
At the very beginning of Bereishis (Genesis), we read of the precision and
order with which Hashem created the world. First, he created the setting for
our world; light, day and night, as well as the planetary system.
Subsequently, he created an environment in which all living things can
exist. Only then was vegetation ready to sprout, followed by the creation of
the animal kingdom. In the final flourish, man, the capstone of all
creation, was formed as a unique hybrid of body and spirit.
The Midrash questions why Hashem waited until the end to make man, and
answers that Hashem meant to thereby impart a profound lesson. Man's
physical being was not only formed from the dust of the earth, as the Torah
tell us. Rather, the creation of man incorporated elements of all the things
created before him. Similar to plants, human beings blossom and wither. We
stand tall and can bear fruit as trees do. We possess some of the
characteristics of animals; sometimes we may carry in our nature a
recognizable strain of a particular animal.
Thus Jacob blesses his son Judah to best harness his kingly mission with his
lion-like instincts; Naftali is compared to the fleet-footed deer; Don is
likened to a snake and so forth. In another example of similarity to the
animal world, built into the physical makeup of all human beings is a
powerful animal-like instinct for self-preservation.
The question is, can we take these 'animal' instincts and make them
subservient to our soul? Can we fulfill the purpose of our creation? If we
do so, says the Midrash, then Hashem tells us, "You are the crown jewel of
creation - you were formed last so that I could create a beautiful and
perfect setting for your spirit. However, if your body follows its base
cravings, then even a little beetle is superior to you, for it preceded you
in the order of creation!"
This awareness that we do indeed have within us animal-like elements, such
as lion-like strength and leopard-like boldness, should lead to an obvious
conclusion. One's body can act with alacrity and determination in swift
pursuit of its needs; we can be light-footed as deer in pursuit of
self-gratification. On the other hand, it these very character traits that
pose the greatest challenge: will we harness them properly to nurture not
only our bodies but our souls? Will we consecrate these instincts to perform
the Divine will?
The ultimate test of whether we are on the right path is whether, at the
moment of awakening each morning, we consciously rededicate all our complex,
powerful physical energies to the service of the Almighty.
With this elevating thought, we join in the high-spirited ritual of
imitating each animal in the rendition of Chad Gadya, following the
resounding chorus that leads us to the ultimate destination, Hakadosh Baruch