Why does the Torah discuss the laws of taharah (ritual purity) for humans only after teaching the analogous laws concerning animals, differentiating between those animals which may be eaten and those which are unclean? Should not humanity, the crown of creation, come first?
Third-century scholar Rabbi Simlai explained:
“Just as mankind was created after all the animals... so too, the laws pertaining to mankind were given after the laws regarding animals.” (Vayikra Rabbah 14:1)
In short, the order here in Leviticus parallels the account of Creation in Genesis. But is there a deeper significance to this order? The Midrash elaborates the lesson to be learned from this:
“If one is deserving, he is told: ‘You came before all of creation.’ But if not, he is reminded: ‘[Even] the mosquito preceded you.'”
What sort of a contest is this, between man and mosquito?
We find in Psalms two nearly identical verses, but with small — and significant — differences:
מָה־רַבּוּ מַעֲשֶׂיךָ ה’ כֻּלָּם בְּחׇכְמָה עָשִׂיתָ מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ קִנְיָנֶךָ׃
“How many are Your works, God! The earth is full of Your creations.” (Psalms 104:24)
מַה־גָּדְלוּ מַעֲשֶׂיךָ ה’ מְאֹד עָמְקוּ מַחְשְׁבֹתֶיךָ׃
“How great are Your works, God! Your thoughts are very profound.” (Psalms 92:6)
What is the difference between these two similar verses? The first verse expresses our wonder at the variety and diversity of God’s works. “How many are Your works!” The second verse expresses our amazement at their greatness and profundity. “How great are your works!” The first verse refers to quantity; the second, quality.
In other words, we may look at the world in two ways. We can be amazed by its detailed, multifaceted nature — its abundance of species and life forms, the remarkable diversity in the world of nature. This viewpoint focuses on the diverse physical aspect of the universe. “The earth is full of Your creations.”
Or we may reflect on the universe’s inner side. We may perceive its wonderful sophistication and delicate balance, a reflection of the profundity of its design and purpose. This view perceives the underlying spiritual nature of the universe, focusing on the preliminary design — God’s ‘thoughts’ — which preceded the physical creation. “Your thoughts are very profound.”
The Midrash which contrasts man and mosquito opens with the verse, “You formed me back and front“ (Psalms 139:5). What does it mean that humanity was formed with two aspects, “back and front”?
‘Back’ refers to the culmination of the world’s physical manifestation. This is the process of creation by contraction (tzimtzum), step by step, until a detailed physical universe, filled with multitudes of diverse creatures, was formed. From this viewpoint, the ubiquitous mosquito is the superior species. If we are not deserving — if we lack our qualitative, spiritual advantage — then we are reminded: “The mosquito preceded you.” In a contest of numerical strength and survival skills, the mosquito wins hands down. From the viewpoint of “How many are Your works,” even the lowly mosquito comes before us.
‘Front,’ on the other hand, refers to the conceptual design that preceded the actual physical creation. If we are deserving — if we put our efforts into developing our spiritual side — then we belong to the realm of God’s thoughts that transcend the physical world. On the qualitative basis of “How great are Your works,” we may take our place before the rest of creation.
(Sapphire from the Land of Israel. Adapted from Shemuot HaRe’iyah, Tazria (1929))