In the worldwide debate over the tragic shooting of a gorilla in a Cincinnati zoo after a 4-year-old boy crawled into its enclosure, some have raised the question as to whether or not the gorilla should have been killed. Yet, it would seem that from a Jewish standpoint the issue is moot. The Jewish response can be summed up in a few sentences:

Not only are we prohibited from needlessly causing pain to an animal,1 we are commanded to feed our animals before we ourselves eat.2 At the same time, the Torah states that “Man is created in the image of G‑d.”3 According to Jewish law, saving a human life takes precedence over the life of an animal, even when it is not entirely certain that the person’s life is in danger. Following this, it seems clear that according to Jewish law, the zookeepers were right to shoot the animal even if they weren’t 100 percent certain that the gorilla was going to harm or kill the child. On the contrary, to hesitate in such a situation would be contrary to Jewish law.4

But the outcry following this very sad incident can teach us some profound lessons.

The reason that the death of Harambe the gorilla struck a chord with so many is not just because it belonged to the Western lowland silverback subspecies of gorillas—currently classified as “critically endangered”—but something more.

Of all the animal species in the world, monkeys and gorillas appear to be the closest to man. We find this affirmed in Jewish sources, where Kabbalists classify primates as being on a higher level than an average animal. They are classified as being on an “intermediate” level between the animal and human tiers of Creation.5

So the tragedy is twofold: It contributed to the decline and (hopefully not) eventual extinction of a species; and it was a creature much closer to us. As a result, there was a more intensive “identification” with the victim.

Even so, this identification with Harambe can divert us from the central point: That while the difference between gorillas and other species is one of degree, the difference between nonhuman primates and human beings is immeasurable.

Our sages tell us that “the first man, Adam, was created alone, to teach us that whoever destroys a single [human] life, the Bible considers it as if they destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a single life, the Bible considers it as if they saved an entire world.”6

From a Torah perspective, saving even a single human life is not just saving a family or even a whole species, it is saving an entire universe.

But there is a second element at stake. Even as the Torah teaches us that mankind was created in the image and likeness of G‑d, it tells us that it is for a purpose: “So that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground."7

Thus, man is responsible for his actions in a way that no other creation is—a fundamental understanding that can explain the hundreds of thousands of people who have signed online petitions saying that the child’s parents should somehow be held accountable for the gorilla’s death.

If Harambe’s death is to have any meaning, it needs to strike home the preciousness of every single human life, coupled with the importance of human responsibility. So the next time you think of Harambe the gorilla, or you are out and see your fellow in need, be sure to help—for you are responsible for an entire world.