Last summer I journeyed far from the daily craziness of rabbinic life, to the wilds of Africa, and it was out there that I rediscovered why I do what I do back here.
Job states, “God teaches us from the animals of the land,” and on safari I found myself immersed in a vast, orderly ecosystem, where, Anatevka-like, all creatures know who they are and what God expects them to do. It took my breath away.
In our world, the only sure things are death and taxes. But there, the only sure thing is death. Because death is ever-present, it is strangely beautiful. Every moment is sharpened. The sunset’s reds are redder, the lion’s roar is louder and the stars are unbelievably bright. Life develops its own intensified rhythm.
The animals I saw were free and content (except for those unfortunate moments when they were being eaten). They became my new congregation, often resembling the folks back home in unexpected ways.
Karen Blixen wrote, “You know you are truly alive when you’re living among lions.” There is such pathos to their story. No wonder lions have become a prime symbol of the Jewish people and Jerusalem. So powerful, yet so fragile. Adult males wander vast distances and often appear forlorn and threatened, sharing with the Jew both nobility and mobility.
In Jewish art, lions are always guarding something; they are the epitome of earthly courage. Leon Uris chose the name Ari — lion — for his quintessential Israeli hero in “Exodus,” and Israel often uses lion synonyms in naming jet fighters.
With lions, as with Jews, the problem of continuity is particularly acute. Three out of four cubs do not make it to adulthood and the population has become dangerously small. It was shocking to learn that lion males destroy the cubs of other sires in order to give their own kids a competitive advantage.
Back home we call that the college admissions process.
One morning, we came upon two panting lions devouring a giraffe. Even this longtime vegetarian was transfixed at this most carnivorous sight, one that somehow reaffirmed my faith in the order of things. This was a meaningful death, meant to perpetuate the grand plan. That giraffe had been born, in part, for the purpose of being eaten by that lion, and on some level the giraffe knew it.
That evening, I heard the news about the mass murder that took place at a summer camp in Norway, a senseless killing in a world gone mad. In contrast, the carnage I saw on the savannah reaffirmed a grander plan and sustained nature’s precious balance. I wished I didn’t have to go back to “civilization.”
Incidentally, did you know that giraffes are kosher? But you won’t find much giraffe meat at Fairway. There are, shall we say, logistical problems. Imagine this elderly rabbi with a knife walking up to a giraffe with a stepladder and trying to find the right spot to kill it painlessly.
I fell in love with giraffes — clearly the most Jewish animal in the bush. They’re basically pacifist, but they have a good swift kick to fend off predators. Like Jews, they hang out in family groups and protect each other; they are a little goofy and try to keep out of everyone else’s way. And they are ruminants. That, along with the split hoof, is what makes them kosher.
It’s great to be a ruminant. Giraffes get to enjoy life. They nosh a little, and then they just hang while they regurgitate their food and eat it again with their second stomach. Elephants, in contrast, have only one stomach, so they have to keep eating nonstop, consuming leaves and branches the weight equivalent of three people daily. An elephant may never forget, but memory alone is not enough. Ruminants get to, well, ruminate. Like Jews. You are what you eat — and Jews eat animals that are peace-loving ruminators.
Once our guide alerted us to a pair of giraffes that looked like they were about to mate. We watched for several minutes. The male kept on chewing. Ruminating. Finally the female walked away. The moment was missed. God knows what this male was thinking. If giraffes are the most Jewish of animals, we had just met the Woody Allen of giraffes.
Rhinos are fascinating. Whenever I saw one I felt like we were in Jurassic Park. I asked our guide who is the rhino’s most feared predator and he said, “You.” Sure enough, rhino poaching has reached epidemic proportions in Africa. I also learned that rhino males pile their dung in huge heaps, to leave a sort of calling card on their territory, so their families can find them. Our guide compared the practice to posting on someone's Facebook wall. I reflected on all the dung that flies in the turf wars that so often rip apart Jewish communities. At least the rhinos pile theirs neatly.
Despite spasms of violence, most of what we saw was like a grand Garden of Eden. Lots of moms and babies cuddling. Lots of eating, drinking, sleeping and reproducing. The miracle of the ordinary. On Shabbat afternoon, I gazed down at the water hole beneath my porch and saw a small antelope gently picking at branches and drinking. I thought of Psalm 42: “As a deer thirsts for water, so, O Lord, do I thirst for You.” The world around me seemed so at peace and complete. Long after I am gone, I thought, this will still be here, and to the degree that I am One with it, so will I.
My week on the savannah reminded me that I have a role to play, that I’m a small piece in a very large puzzle, that I fit in, right next to the lion and the giraffe, the bar mitzvah student and the grieving widow. We all have our sacred task in this eternal game.
We all know a song of Africa.
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El in Stamford, Conn.