Devarim – Basic Instincts

This Shabbos is called Shabbos Chazon after the beginning of the haftorah: “Chazon Yeshayahu ben Amotz”. Yeshayahu bemoans the state of the Jewish people in his time: “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth, for the Lord has spoken; Children I have raised and exalted, yet they have rebelled against Me. An ox knows his owner and a donkey his master's trough; Israel does not know, my people do not concentrate. Woe to a sinful nation, a people heavy with iniquity, evildoing seed, corrupt children. They forsook the Lord; they provoked the Holy One of Israel; they drew backwards” (Yeshayahu 1:2-4). A very apropos selection for the haftorah before we fast in mourning over the destruction of both Batie Mikdash (Holy Temples).
The Ibn Ezra points out that the Jews are specifically compared to an ox and a donkey because they were always found around people. The lesson of the posuk being, “that these animals are better in knowledge than them… because I raised them (the Jews) and they don’t recognize me” (Ibn Ezra on Yeshayahu 1:3). (Click here for Hebrew text.)
Yeshayahu seems to be specifically comparing the Jews to an ox who knows his owner and a donkey who knows his master’s trough because they can most relate to the lesson that he is trying to teach them. He is saying that the ox and donkey recognize their owner and master, follow their commands, and trust  in the way they take care of them. However the Jews are not good servants following their Master and trusting in His care; rather, they have forsaken Hashem and forgot who raised them and turned them into a nation.It would be understandable if the Ibn Ezra pointed out how the Jews act differently than how an animal acts towards its owner; however the Ibn Ezra says that  animals are better in knowledge than the Jewish people. How can that be? Even if a human being is rebellious he can still talk, has free choice, and thinks on a more complex level than any animal. So how can the Ibn Ezra say that animals were more knowledgeable than the Jews just because they instinctively follow and don’t disobey their master who trained them and raised them?
We must say that of course the Jewish people were more knowledgeable and smarter than animals. Butin respect to the natural, basic instincts of one trusting and following their master,  they were inferior to animals.

Domesticated animals have the innate ability to bond with their owner. They know their owner will always feed them and give them shelter. They always know where to go back to, how to return home. They follow the commands of their master once they are taught and instructed to do so. A human being also has the ability to be trained to act on instincts. It is called habit. There are good habits and bad habits. If a person does not train himself to trust in Hashem and follow in His ways then his knowledge of his Master in Heaven is worse than an animal’s knowledge of its master.

An animal does have an easier time  following its owner because it is programmed to do that, especially if it has incentives like food or a leash. But a human is endowed with free choice and Hashem purposefully makes it more challenging for one to do the right thing so that he will earn a greater reward for serving Hashem properly. Hwever it seems that we have the ability to and indeed are expected to, reach the level of having complete faith in our Master in Heaven and fulfill His will, just like an animal does and more so. The fact that we have to put in more effort to serve our master makes us greater than any animal. It is just that if we don’t trust and follow our master, the knowledge the animal has of his master is better than our knowledge of our Master.