Havdala- a distinction: The strange meaning of being human

The siddur is teaching us, indeed forcing us to admit, that we are human beings with the abilities of God but with the psyches of beasts.

Havdala by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Havdala by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
EVERY SUMMER I serve as the Rosh Beit Midrash at Camp Ramah in New England. On Saturday nights, we gather together in the forest ‒ 550 campers and 250 staff members ‒ and recite together the “Havdala,” the prayer that separates Shabbat from the rest of the week. During the day that preceded, work ceased ‒ we were not on our computers, we were not driving in and out of camp for supplies, we were not planning the days and weeks ahead. Instead, we spent time speaking to each other, reading books, playing sports, enjoying our beautiful lake and studying Torah. The moment the enormous havdala candle would be put out, these daily routines would immediately be upon us. Regular, creative life would return.

The act of lighting that havdala candle was the beginning of that process. In a midrash that appears in Genesis Rabbah 12:6 (and elsewhere), Adam, the first human being created, becomes frightened at the end of Shabbat; this is his first experience with darkness. Shabbat had been filled with the special light God created on the first day ‒ a holy light whose source was not the sun. Adam fears that the darkness is coming to “bite him.”

God sends Adam two stones from heaven; Adam clashes them together and they make a fire. Over this fire, Adam offers God the blessing, “Blessed are you Adonai, Our God, ruler of the universe, who makes the lights of the fire.” This is the moment, at the end of Shabbat, when Adam begins to act as a human being, manipulating his environment such that it will provide maximum benefit for him.

Non-human animals do not make fire. Some non-human animals build houses, some non-human animals have rudimentary language and some make tools. Virtually every distinction offered between the capabilities of humans and animals has some exception, but not, as far as I know, this one. Human beings are the only creatures on the planet who manipulate fire. We use it to cook our food, which according to some evolutionary biologists, is the step that allowed our ancient ancestors to develop such large brains. We use it to clear land to grow our crops. We use it to make bricks.

And, of course, we use it for acts of great destruction. A few generations after Adam, the people of Babel will take those bricks and use them to make a tower in an act of rebellion against God. Manipulating our environment, making fire, is the beginning of our development, and it is also the beginning of our destruction.

During my freshman year at the University of Michigan, I took a class in astronomy. I must admit that I found the physics side of the class difficult and I retain little of what I was taught. But when the professor began to speak about life on other planets, all 1,200 ears pricked up. Communicating with life on other planets, so our professor taught us, is dependent on how long intelligent life exists on either of the potentially communicating planets before it uses up its resources and goes extinct. According to my professor, whose name, I confess, I do not remember, there is very little possibility of humanity ever communicating with extra-terrestrial life. In the time between sending a message from Earth and receiving a reply, we would have become extinct. He further posited that once human beings began to manipulate their environment, their end was inevitable.

Combined with the midrash, we might say that from the time God sent down those two stones from heaven and Adam struck them together, God and Adam together had set a process in motion that would end with humanity’s extinction.

This is the strange meaning of being human. There are vast differences in the extent of our capabilities and those of the animal world. Beavers can build dams, but only human beings can build indoor water parks. Whales can communicate with each other, but only human beings have poopshaped emojis. Chimpanzees can use tools, but only human beings have sporks. We are masters of manipulation and communication. It is the source of our strength and, yet, at the same time, it is the greatest danger we pose to the world.

OUR EXISTENTIAL problem lies in a paradox that already troubled the author of Kohelet thousands of years ago ‒ “The human has no superiority over beast since both amount to nothing.” (Ecclesiastes 3:19) This is a truth confirmed by modern biologists ‒ there is no biological difference that unequivocally makes us humans. Our minds, too, are deeply entrenched in our beastly roots. Like animals, we, too, are driven by our “animal” instincts to conquer, to possess, to occupy territory. Super-intelligent and capable we are, but we remain animals with little ability to control our inner drives.

Kohelet’s conclusion as to how to respond drips with danger: “I saw that there is nothing better for humans than to enjoy their possessions, since that is their portion. For who can enable them to see what will happen afterward?” (v. 22). Thousands of years later, we still hear this response from people confronted with the calamity presented by climate change. We cannot know for sure what will happen in the future, the heating of the planet may turn out to be not so bad after all. We might as well go on enjoying our possessions.

But the rabbis, in their wisdom, did not give Kohelet the last voice. In the morning prayers, we recite verse 19: “The difference between human beings and beasts is nothing” but instead of continuing with Kohelet’s cynical answer, we immediately read the next line, “Yet we are your people, the children of your covenant.” The covenant referred to here is probably the covenant between God and the people of Israel. But there is a prior covenant, the first covenant that comes into existence in the world ‒ God’s covenant with Noah and his descendants. With the sign of the rainbow, God promises humanity that water will never destroy the Earth.

The combination of these two lines is remarkable. The siddur is teaching us, indeed forcing us to admit, that we are human beings with the abilities of God but with the psyches of beasts. But it then reminds us that we still have God’s promise never to destroy the world again.

That promise is worth something, but it falls far short from being a guarantee that the world will never be destroyed. We, after all, seem poised to destroy it without God’s help.

To conclude with a message of hope, I want to reach back to that initial moment when God sent those two stones down from heaven and thereby invited Adam to be God’s partner in creation. That moment happened at the end of Shabbat. Adam understood what he was supposed to do ‒ he made havdala, a distinction. Adam somehow understood that there is a time for creating (the week) and there is a time (Shabbat) for not creating. He also seems to have understood one more difference between humans and non-human animals ‒ only humans can choose to refrain from obeying their instincts. Only humans can choose to keep Shabbat, to stop manipulating their environment.

It’s a choice we’re going to have to make if we want humanity to stick around long enough to meet those aliens.

Dr. Joshua Kulp is the Rosh Yeshiva, USCJ Conservative Yeshiva