Let’s start with two stories. The tales are somewhat similar: in both, one creature attempts to act like another, but fails.

In the first, it’s an animal who is trying to be human; in the second it’s a human trying to be an animal.

Here’s the first story:

Once, during a dinner discussion at the royal palace, Maimonides, personal physician to Sultan Saladin, argued that only human beings can change their character, while animals could not.

One of the sultan’s anti-Semitic advisors, seeing an opportunity to humiliate the Jewish physician, proposed a wager, claiming he could transform a cat into a waiter, thus teaching it to behave contrary to its nature.

Now, the advisor was also a remarkable animal trainer, and did indeed succeed in training the cat to walk on its hind legs, to hold a little tray in its paws, to wear a costume of sorts, etc.With great fanfare, the advisor opened the door, and in walked the cat

On the designated day, Maimonides arrived with only a little box. The Sultan and his court seated themselves. With great fanfare, the advisor opened the door, and in walked the cat—costumed, on two legs, with a tray of delicacies in his paws.

The sultan looked at Maimonides, who, still smiling, opened his box. Out ran a mouse. The cat immediately dropped the tray, went down on all fours and began chasing the mouse all over the great dining hall . . .

The second story, as told by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov:

There was once a prince who went mad and insisted he was a rooster. He sat under the table naked, clucking and eating his food off the floor. The king had tried everything to cure him, but nothing worked, and he was in despair. How could this mad son of his ever grow up to inherit the kingdom?

A wise man who had heard about the king’s predicament arrived at the palace and said he could cure the prince. He was promised great reward if he succeeded.

So, the wise man took off his clothes and sat under the table, pretending to be a chicken too. Sitting there under the table, he began to get to know the Rooster Prince.

Then one day, the man called for a pair of pants and began putting them on. The Rooster Prince objected, saying, “What do you mean, wearing those pants? You’re a rooster, and roosters can’t wear pants!”

“Who says a rooster can’t wear pants?” the man replied. “Why shouldn’t I be warm and comfortable, too? Why should only humans have all the good things?”

The Rooster Prince thought for a while. The man had a point. The floor under the table was very cold and uncomfortable . . . So he asked for pants, too, and put them on.

The next day, the man asked for a warm shirt, and began to put it on. Again the Rooster Prince objected: “How can you do that? Roosters don’t wear shirts!”“Why should I have to shiver in the cold just because I’m a rooster?”

“Who says?” the man replied. “Why should I have to shiver in the cold just because I’m a rooster?”

Again the Rooster Prince thought it over, and realized that he was cold, too—so he put on a shirt. And so it went with socks, shoes, a belt, a hat . . . Soon the Rooster Prince was talking normally, eating with a knife and fork from a plate, sitting properly at the table; in short, he was acting human once more.

Princes or Cats?

Who is man? An age-old question if there ever was one.

Is he born with an essence, or is his nucleus formed through childhood?

If something in him is innate, what is it?

One prominent religion subscribes to the theory of original sin, claiming that man was born into sin. Thus, man is a sinner by nature.

Many respected secular thinkers reached a similar conclusion, though from an entirely different point of view.

They maintain that at his core, man is driven by selfishness, ego and lust, and is no more than a masquerading beast. The good in him is superimposed and external, the result of nurture, not nature.

Some are grimmer in their analysis:

Any good which man does, they posit, is insincere and false; the smile and the favor are but tools of manipulation and self-interest.

Judaism is far more optimistic.

For one, in one of its most breathtaking teachings, the Bible states that “G‑d created man in His image.”

G‑d is inherently good, and so is the being He created called man.

As for the question of how man comes to sin if indeed he is so G‑dly, the Talmud answers profoundly: “A person does not commit a transgression unless a spirit of folly enters him.” 1

Far from being poetic, the Talmud here weighs in on our question regarding the makeup of man.

Unlike others who believe that man is at best a trainable cat who can act human so long as the mice are away, the Talmud suggests that man is in essence a beautiful being—a royal prince!—who, because of a “spirit of folly,” can sometimes confuse himself with a squalid rooster.In Jewish thought, it is badness, not goodness, which is alien to man

Thus, in Jewish thought, it is badness, not goodness, which is alien to man, a foreign product smuggled in from the outside.

A Third Story

A professor once complained to the Rebbe about the nature of people.

“From my encounters, I have noticed that people can seem nice and charming at the outset. They may express concern for you, show interest in your life, and even openly admit that they love you! But if one digs just a little deeper than the outer surface—some require more digging than others—at their core everyone is exactly the same: selfish, arrogant and egotistic. Why is this the nature of mankind?”

The Rebbe responded with a parable:

“When one walks on the street, things often look so elegant and appealing: tall flowery trees, fancy houses, paved roads and expensive cars. But if one takes a hoe and begins digging beneath the surface, he discovers dirt and mud, nothing like the beautiful but ‘deceptive’ world aboveground.”

At this point the professor was nodding his head in agreement, not fully realizing where this was going.

“But if he weren’t to give up,” the Rebbe concluded, “and would continue digging deeper, he would eventually encounter precious minerals and diamonds.”

So, it’s not that Freud had it all wrong.

He just didn’t dig deep enough.

For if he would have, he’d have discovered that beneath the id is the Yid.2

And even if we at times succumb to our animal inclination, we can always be humanized again, since like the prince beneath the table, and like diamonds coated in dirt, our essence never changes.3