The Parsha begins with elaborations on laws pertaining to human purity:
דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר אִשָּׁה כִּי תַזְרִיעַ - Speak to the children of Israel, saying: If a woman conceives…. (12:2)
אשה כי תזריע : אמר ר’ שמלאי כשם שיצירתו של אדם אחר כל בהמה חיה ועוף במעשה בראשית, כך תורתו נתפרשה אחר תורת בהמה חיה ועוף – If a woman conceives: Rabbi Simlai said: “Just as in the Creation, man was created after all domestic animals, wild beasts, and birds, so too, the law [concerning the cleanness] of man is stated after the law [concerning the cleanness] of domestic animals, wild beasts, and birds.”- [Vayikra Rabbah 14:1]
The Gemara (Sanhedrin 38a) explores why the creation of man followed the creation of birds and beasts. It concludes that “אחור קודם צרתני – you were formed first and last” (Tehillim 139:5). What does this mean? If a man is worthy, we say he preceded Creation, but if he is a sinner, we say that even a mosquito was created before him, so he has nothing to be arrogant about, given that even minuscule entities such as the mosquito were created before him.
However, this is difficult to comprehend – “If a man is worthy, we say he preceded Creation” – if we examine the reality, man was created last, on the 6th day of Creation, so how are we to understand the Gemara?
“If a man is worthy” means that he values his soul above all, and his body is just a means to serve the soul – learning Torah and performing mitzvos are the focal point of his existence, and earthly pleasures are worthless – such a man did indeed precede Creation. How? Because the soul is a part of Hashem, and it is beyond any thread of existence, as it was never created. The soul manifests itself in a body, but if the soul is the focal point, then it certainly preceded Creation.
However, if the inverse is the case, that a man is not worthy – and his body and earthly pleasures are what he seeks out and works for, and Torah and mitzvos are just a waste of time that just need to be done – with such a man, his body is the focal point of his existence, and that was created at the end, even after a mosquito.
So if a person values their soul above all, they are the pinnacle of creation, that the existence was created for, so the soul could fulfil it’s purpose and duty, and if G-d forbid not, they are less worthy than the lowest creatures, and indeed worse, the anticlimax of Creation – they could have been so much more!
When man is the pinnacle of Creation, our Sages say that animals cannot harm righteous people, and if they can harm someone, it is because he has behaved in a manner befitting of animals, and the animal views such a person as an equal (Gemara Shabbos 151b). By nature, even a lion can’t harm a person who has cleansed and purified themselves from sin and his entire self is devoted to Hashem.
This is the way to understand the story told in Sanhedrin 59b about Rabbi Shimon ben Chalafta. He was taking a stroll and stumbled a cross a pride of lions that noticed him and started growling. He was not afraid, and muttered “They are simply asking their Creator for food”, and meat fell out the sky and they ate their fill and moved on. Rabbi Shimon with some leftover meat and asked his yeshiva and fellow rabbis if the meat was permissible to eat, and they answered that impure things don’t fall out the sky.
R’ Yitzchak Zilberstein is astounded by this – R’ Shimon got to his yeshiva, and started discussing the halacha of the meat, rather than benching HaGomel (prayer thanking G-d for miraculous deliverance), as the Gemara explicitly states that someone who survives such an encounter with a lion does indeed do?
The answer is as we said previously – for a man who removed all earthly desires and purified himself, it is no miracle to be saved from nature; he is by definition above nature – this is how he could remain calm during the situation, and afterwards where he had no need to say HaGomel.
The Alshich in Ki Sisa (Shemos 34:11) regarding a Pasuk in Noach that after the Flood, animals would fear man. If they would fear man, how could there be a situation in which a lion could kill a man?
He explains that the צלם אלוקים בפניו – that man’s face, reflects that he is created in the image of, and the light frightens animals, who recognise this. If someone is not on this lofty level, his sins cover this light up, and the animals are not frightened; why shoudl they be? It’s just another piece of meat…
For a more contemporary example of this, there is a famous story about the Pnei Yehoshua (biography here). He was on the way to shul one morning wearing his tallis and tefillin, and noticed that this day wasn’t like others – the usually busy streets were deserted! He heard someone calling out to him “Rebbi! The lion escaped from the zoo and is roaming the streets – run back home!”, and this was why everyone was terrified to leave their homes. The Pnei Yehoshua walked through the town and asked people through their windows where he could find the lion, and the townspeople were very worried about their rabbi, who was walking around the town looking for a lion. He encountered it in a small grassy area, approached it, and threw back the hood of his tallis, revealing his tefillin. When the lion saw this, it jumped up and ran away, and the Pnei Yehoshua ran after it and chased it out of the area.