The amazing thing about living with animals is I get to observe a very powerful force of nature up close: Instinct.

For example, my pet hen Stripey knows exactly how to incubate and hatch eggs, even though she never read a parenting book, never saw another chicken do it, and she herself was born in an incubator and never knew her mother.

How is it possible that nevertheless, she knows how to regulate the temperature of the eggs, how often to turn them and how to care for the chicks when they’re born?

The answer: Instinct!

The same thing goes for my bees. How do they know how to sweat out beeswax into precisely geometric hexagonal patterns to create honeycomb? You could say, in that case, that they see their older sister bees doing it and are perhaps learning from them.

My bee swarm on its last legs. The only babies are boys – a sure sign of doom!

But it doesn’t explain it, because all over the world honeybees make honeycomb not just in the same hexagonal pattern, but with the exact same dimensions for each cell! Bees don’t attend international honeycomb architecture conferences nor watch DIY videos on Youtube, so how is this possible?

The answer: instinct!

We humans don’t seem to possess such marvelous instincts. There isn’t anything complicated that we are born knowing how to do expertly. Today I was wondering why Hashem doesn’t give people strong instinctive skills?

My initial thought: He has elevated humans above animals and has given us a different path: free choice and creativity. We don’t HAVE to do anything. My hens and my bees truly have no choice but to brood or build when their instincts tell them they must. Nor can they decide how to go about this. Humans must CHOOSE what to do and then decide HOW to do it.

Some people say “don’t act like an animal” and that’s supposed to mean: “don’t act wrongly.” But animals never act wrongly, they just follow their instincts. Humans don’t have animal instincts. When we do wrong, it’s always a choice on some level.

Ouch! Did I just say that?

Yes – and I’m talking to me as much as anyone else.

That’s what Yom Kippur is for. To look that reality hard in the eye. To admit our wrongs and to make amends. As Jews, we believe not only that we are culpable for all our thoughts, words and actions, but we also believe in the sacred potential for forgiveness and atonement.

And maybe that, more than anything, sets us apart from animals.

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