My nephew stared in astonishment. He pointed to the large
hairy thing hanging from my arm by its sharp claws.
"What is it?" he asked.
"It's a sloth," I replied. Then, since he was only three
years old and probably unfamiliar with the term, I added,
"Sort of like a monkey, but it lives upside down."
He moved closer to examine it in greater detail. Suddenly it
lunged towards him and he yelped as it fastened its jaws
around his nose. It gave his nose a tweak and then looked
Okay, so it wasn't a real sloth. It was a very lifelike
puppet that I bought for a considerable sum of money at the
National Zoo in Washington. I had set my eyes and heart upon
it in the gift shop, but first I wanted to see the real
thing, which I had missed in my tour of the small animal
house. So I returned to look again at the cage.
The enclosure was fairly large and contained several types of
animals, all from South America. Leaping through the trees
were marmosets and other monkeys. Slumped over a rock at the
back was a large iguana. Lying on the floor of the enclosure
were several leathery spheres, each about the size of a
grapefruit. Occasionally one would unhinge itself and scurry
around on the tips of its claws -- an armadillo. Agoutis,
which resemble guinea-pigs but have longer legs, ran around
But no sign of the sloth. I sat in front of the cage,
carefully inspecting every inch of it. I have to admit that I
do take some pride in my ability to spot animals where other
people can't -- I see more lizards during a walk in Jerusalem
than most people would imagine exist in Jerusalem. But, after
ten minutes searching, I simply could not spot the sloth. It
was doubly irritating because three days earlier, at a rain
forest exhibit in the Baltimore Aquarium, one of the staff
had told me where to look for the sloth, and I hadn't been
able to find that one, either. "Ooh, look at that!" pointed a
woman who passed by the cage at that moment.
Of course, once it had been pointed out, it was obvious.
There it was, hanging from a branch by its massive claws, no
more than ten feet away from me. Its shaggy coat wasn't too
different in color from the tree (in the wild, sloths even
have algae and insects growing in their fur), but that wasn't
the best camouflage in the animal kingdom. The reason why it
had been so difficult to spot was due to something else
It was utterly immobile. The sloth hung off the branch like a
dead weight, without moving a muscle. Actually, the reason
for this may well have been that it was a dead weight; a
sloth's grip on its branch is so secure that in death it
continues to hang unless it is forcibly unhooked. But, even
when alive, sloths move little more than when dead, so it
might well have been alive; there was no way to tell.
The eye is attracted to movement. I am good at spotting
lizards, but they dart around swiftly. Security men at
airports conceal themselves by standing absolutely still. A
chameleon's color- changing ability is probably less crucial
to its camouflage than its almost imperceptibly slow
Likewise the sloth. Their metabolism is so slow that they may
take a half a minute to move a leg a few inches. Their
digestive system is so slow that they need only defecate
about once a week. They even sneeze slowly.
Being so slow, and indeed entirely immobile for much of the
time, they are almost invisible to predators. By keeping such
a low profile they avoid running into dangerous
confrontations. As a result, they enjoy a high survival rate,
and are one of the commoner animals in the rain forests.
Which brings me to an anecdote that I once heard. There was a
woman who was very involved in a large organization that did
some very valuable community work. But one day she consulted
her rabbi about her desire to quit. In the course of her
work, she said, she would hear all kinds of loshon hora
and other interpersonal sins. She wanted to give up her
important job and stay at home, where she would keep a low
profile and avoid getting into any loshon hora
The rabbi answered her with a (fictional) story. An importer
once received word that his latest shipment had arrived at
"Hank," he called to his driver, "Go and pick up the delivery
from the ship."
Three hours later, Hank returns. "Boss," he says, "You
wouldn't believe the trip that I had. It was incredible. The
roads were totally clear, there was no traffic. The scenery
was incredible, it was so green and beautiful. And the
weather was gorgeous! I tell ya, boss, it was the best drive
I ever did."
"Yeah, but Hank," says his boss in alarm, looking at the
truck, "Hank! What about the goods, Hank? You forgot to get
It's important, said the rabbi, to keep your sights set on
the donut, not on the hole. There are important jobs that
need to be done. Sure, there are pitfalls and dangers along
the way, and you have to avoid them as best as you can. But
you have to go for the tasks anyway.
By keeping a slow and low profile, sloths save themselves
from many dangers. But such a lifestyle has serious
drawbacks. Sloths just don't get much done in life. Their
birthrate is low, with a single young born once a year. They
can't do much for their kids anyway -- a mother rushing to
help her threatened infant was timed at 14 feet per minute.
They don't get to see much of the jungle, and while it's true
that animals don't really achieve things anyway, sloths
achieve less than most.
There is a folk tale of the Karaja Indians concerning sloths.
It is said that in the rain forest of Brazil (where the sloth
is called "a-ee" because every once in a long while it sighs
gently, "a-ee, a-ee") that once the a-ee fathers thought of
changing their ways. It was a stormy night. The wind lashed
at the a-ee mothers and babies, and the rain soaked them, as
they lay unprotected on the branches of the monkey-paw trees.
They shivered (thus goes the story, but in reality sloths
have too slow a metabolism to be able to shiver), and sighed,
"a-ee, a-ee." A father a-ee said earnestly, "Tomorrow, we
build nests!" "Yes, tomorrow for sure," the other fathers
The next morning was sunny. The fathers basked in the warmth
for a while. Then they ate their breakfast, slowly, for a
long while. Then they took a nap for a long, long while. By
then, no one thought again about building nests. At least,
not until the next downpour. And what did the father a- ees
say then? "Tomorrow, we build nests!"
Immobility saves you from many dangers, but it prevents you
from achievements. This is a reality for all sloths and many
people. People often prefer the safety of immobility to risk-
laden action. They may desist from marrying, out of fears
that their spouse may have hidden and unpleasant attributes.
They may avoid taking journeys, out of fears for their
They may refrain from taking new responsibilities, out of
fears that they may not be able to cope with all of the new
demands. They may even have grounds for their fears. But if
you take that approach, you'll never get anything done in
Before I published my first book, a number of people warned
me against publishing. There will be mistakes in it, they
told me. You'll lead people astray. You'll want to make
changes later. I consulted my rebbe, Rabbi Binyomin
Moskovits, who told me to ignore them, though not quite for
the reasons that I had expected.
"Of course there will be mistakes," he said. "Everyone makes
mistakes. But if you play it safe and avoid taking action,
you'll never get anything done in life. Do it, do it with the
mistakes, and each new project will have fewer and fewer
"For there is no righteous man on earth who does good and
does not sin" (Koheles 7:20). I once heard this verse
explained to mean that a man might be able to avoid sin by
not doing anything at all; but if he does good, he is bound
to sin at some point. As the old saying goes, the man who
never made a mistake, never made anything.
All life contains risks. But there are jobs that we need to
do, tasks that we are required to perform. It might be safer
to act like the sloth, but it won't get you anywhere. The
nest has to be built today.
Nosson Slifkin studies at the Mirrer Yeshiva and teaches
at Ohr Somayach. He is the author of the Focus Series
on the parsha, and Seasons of Life: The Reflection
of the Jewish Year in the Natural World, all published by