Earlier this week, New Zealand’s Maori king announced that whales will be recognized as ‘legal persons’ and he hopes that governments will enforce this proposal.

While lawyers will ponder over the fascinating legal implications of such a declaration, the king is right to highlight the interdependence we have with the natural world, and that the largest mammals on the planet deserve to be respected.

The Torah is also aware of our place in the scheme of creation. According to the Sages, it challenges us as to whether we have the right to automatically assume that we are at the top of the pile.

Last week’s parasha dealt with the laws relating to animals, fish, birds and insects. In particular, the laws of their purity are discussed. This week’s parasha opens with the laws of purity for a woman who gives birth. It then goes on to consider tzara’at, the skin condition that could make anyone impure. This sequence of animals then humans, broadly parallels the account in Genesis, where man is the last species to be created.

The usual take on humans being created last is that they are the pinnacle of creation, and that everything else has been created for their benefit. The Talmud, however, offers another interpretation.

“If man becomes proud, he can be reminded that the gnats preceded him in the order of creation.” (Sanhedrin 38a)

What the Talmud is saying is that man’s superiority over the rest of creation isn’t a right. It is a responsibility. When we behave responsibly towards one another and towards the world around us, then we justify our position as the crown of creation. When we abuse that responsibility, then we are no better than any other part of creation. Indeed, in some respects we are worse. A whale or a gnat is not bound to fulfil any ethical law. They do not exercise moral choices. The human categories right or wrong do not apply to them. Their behaviour is completely instinctive. Mankind has been created with the capacity to choose good or evil. When we make choices for the benefit of creation, we merit the description as “a little lower than the angels.” (Psalms, 8) When we squander our responsibility then we are “like the beasts that perish.” (Psalms, 49)

It is fascinating that the Maori word for whale is tohora, which is very similar to the Hebrew word, tehora or pure. The Maori king has challenged us to consider the purity of our motives in the way we interact with whales. Our Torah challenges us on how we interact with all of creation – whales and New Zealand included!