The book of Leviticus, perhaps more than any other book in the Torah, is about man’s service to G‑d. The book is packed with mitzvot and lessons, from how to bring an offering to G‑d, to how to treat one’s fellow neighbor. The word “adam” - “man” - is the first word following the opening statement of the book. It is therefore striking that when it comes to the laws of ritual purity, the Torah only addresses the laws pertaining to people after it addresses the purity of animals.

At the end of last week’s portion, Shemini, the Torah addresses the laws of kosher meat and describes the instances in which an animal becomes a source of impurity, concluding with:

This is the law regarding animals, birds, all living creatures that move in water and all creatures that creep on the ground, to distinguish between the unclean and the clean, and between the animal that may be eaten and the animal that may not be eaten.1

Only then, in this week’s parshah, do we read about the laws of ritual purity for humans.

If the book is primarily addressed to humankind, why are the laws of human purity written only after the laws of animal purity?

According to the Midrash, the order of the laws of purity follows the order of creation. Since man was created after the animals, the laws of his ritual purity were stated after the laws pertaining to animals.2

This, however, merely leads to another question: Why indeed were the animals created before humans?

The Talmud offers two possible explanations:3

  1. Human was created last so that, should he become too arrogant, he could be told “even a mosquito preceded you,” implying that man is inferior to the rest of creation.
  2. In order that humankind would benefit from a full world prepared just for him. As the Midrash puts it: “Man was invited to the banquet once the meal was already prepared.”

These two reasons appear to be polar opposites. While the first reason indicates that the human is inferior to the animals, the second indicates that he is in fact superior to all animals, which is precisely why he was created at the final step of creation.

So which is it? Are we inferior to the mosquito or are we the crown jewel of creation?

Both are true.

Man alone, amongst all creations in the universe, is able to defy his Creator. All other creations must follow their G‑d-given nature and instincts. In this, man is indeed inferior to all animals, as we read in Tanya:

For the lusting drive in his animal soul is capable of lusting also after forbidden things, which are contrary to G‑d’s will… In this he is inferior to and more loathsome and abominable than unclean animals and insects and reptiles.4

Yet, there is more to the story of man.

Man is also unique in his ability to choose to rise above his instincts. Man was given the intellectual power, the spiritual freedom and fortitude, to enlighten and improve himself. Man alone has the ability to take the spiritually lowest material—material capable of defying the Divine—and develop and elevate it. Man is able to transform himself and the world around him to a place hospitable to the Divine.

Man was created last because he is inferior to the mosquito in his ability to choose evil. Yet this inferiority is the very source of his superiority! When man toils with himself, when he plows and plants the soil of his heart, he indeed becomes superior to all creatures.

For he alone is able to choose. He alone has the ability to overcome his instincts and nature. He alone can plant the earth of his heart and cause holiness to grow.

We must understand that G‑d does not seek perfection, He seeks the transformative power of toil. Specifically because we were created spiritually inferior to the animals, when we choose the right path, we ascend to the greatest spiritual heights.5