One morning I visited the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo to discuss a
Torah-based guidebook that we were working on (it has now
been published, under the title In Noah's Ark: Biblical
Perspectives on the Zoo). Shmulik, the zoologist that I
was speaking with, suddenly cut me short; he had to go and
attend to a sick ibex.
I'm not one to miss an opportunity. "Mind if I come with?" I
"Sure, come along," he said. The head keeper drove up in the
Jeep, and Shmulik, the vet, and myself climbed in.
Sitting in the back of the Jeep, I couldn't help but notice
the rifle next to me on the seat. I'm no gun expert, but it
looked very different from any gun that I had ever seen. For
one thing, there didn't seem to be anywhere to put the
ammunition. There was also a strange dial on top of it, which
appeared to be some kind of gauge. In the context of it being
in the zoo's Jeep, however, I knew what it must be. It was a
gas-powered rifle for shooting anesthetic-loaded syringes.
We reached the hoofed mammal paddock. The vet opened up a box
that contained a plethora of potent-looking potions, from
which he selected a bottle. He filled a syringe with its
contents, attached it to a dart, and loaded it into the
rifle. Then he entered the paddock along with some other
keepers who would shoo the ibex into his direction.
I stayed outside the paddock. Many years ago, in a British
zoo, an eland (a type of large antelope) suddenly went
berserk and impaled its keeper on its horns. That sort of
thing doesn't happen often, but I figured that there's no
sense in taking needless chances.
Ibex are wild goats from the Negev Desert. Referred to as
ya'el in the Torah, they possess magnificent horns
that were used as Shofaros in the Beis Hamikdash.
The ibex in question had injured itself while recovering
from earlier surgery. When awaking from the operation, it had
jerked its head up and twisted its neck. Now its head was
stuck in a lopsided position and it was clearly in a lot of
The keepers formed a line at one side of the paddock and
began to scare the ibex into moving in the direction of the
vet, who was concealed behind a tree. The ibex stumbled
along, its head hanging stiffly down to the side.
"Poor devil," said the lion keeper, who was standing next to
me and watching.
By now, a sizable crowd had gathered. The whole business was
very exciting. After a few tense minutes, the keepers had
maneuvered the ibex near to the vet. The vet took aim with
the rifle, and thwap! The dart hit the animal squarely in the
rump, as everyone winced.
Within a few minutes, the ibex was staggering, and then it
fell down. Quickly the keepers rushed up to it. They
carefully picked it up and placed it onto a tractor, where it
was driven to the clinic for surgery. From that point on it
was authorized personnel only, so I couldn't watch any more.
Instead, I went to another part of the clinic to play with a
sick monkey that was cuddling a stuffed toy, and I was
promptly screamed at by the nurse because it carried some
hideously infectious disease.
Wandering around the rest of the zoo, I tried to think about
what I could write about the exciting hunt. Unfortunately,
nothing came to mind. I toyed with the idea of simply jotting
down the story in the hopes of one day being able to tie it
into something, but in the end I couldn't be bothered.
Today I woke up with an incredibly painful stiff neck. I'm
fairly supple and it was most unexpected. As I ached my way
through the day, I kept on wondering what caused it. Was it
my pillow, my sleeping position, or something else?
The concept of stiff neck wandered through my mind in search
of something to connect with. The Jewish people are described
as a stiff-necked people -- but that didn't help much. But
wait -- I had just been telling someone about the excitement
at the zoo with the stiff-necked ibex. Was there a link?
I think that the connection to the ibex is via a story that I
once read about someone who was walking along a beach in
Mexico and saw a man moving in his direction. Every few
yards, the man would bend down, pick something up, and hurl
it into the sea. As he drew closer, he saw that the objects
that the man was throwing were starfish. He asked him what he
The man replied, rather unnecessarily, that he was throwing
starfish into the sea. He explained that he was doing this
because they had been washed up onto the shore, and now that
it was low tide, they would die if left out of the water.
"I understand," replied the stroller on the beach, "but there
must be thousands of starfish on this beach. You can't
possibly get to all of them. There are simply too many. And
don't you realize that this is probably happening on hundreds
of beaches all up and down this coast. Can't you see that you
can't possibly make a difference?"
The local native smiled, bent down and picked up yet another
starfish and, as he threw it back into the sea, he replied,
"Made a difference to that one!"
The story made me smile, but the point of it
eluded me. I read it again, and pondered over it. After some
thought, I decided that the point was as follows.
The authors of the story appreciated the importance of caring
for animals. But they perceived it only at an intellectual
and therefore large-scale level. If there is a problem with a
particular species or group of animals, then the World
Wildlife Fund should form a program to deal with it involving
a team of zoologists and conservationists.
The man on the beach viewed matters a little differently. He
saw a little starfish that was about to die. To him, it
didn't matter how much difference he was going to make to the
species as a whole. He didn't even think along such lines.
For any starfish that he saw stranded on the beach, he felt
pain, and his goal was to help that starfish.
Now, it is true that from a strictly philosophical Torah
perspective, it is the species of animal that counts rather
than the individual. Hashgacha, Divine care of
animals, functions only at the species level, with the
individual creature considered possessing no independent or
However, that is only true from the philosophical perspective
vis-a-vis Hashem. From man's point of view, the mitzvah of
being kind to animals is a purely emotional task. This is
clear from the story of Rabbi Yehuda Hanossi and the calf.
Rabbi Yehuda Hanossi was once walking along when a calf came
running up to him. It was fleeing in terror from the butcher;
a terror which was due to be short-lived, as was the calf.
But Rabbi Yehuda Hanossi did not take pity upon it. He said,
"Go; for this is what you were made for!" As a result of this
he suffered pain for many years. His atonement came when his
maid discovered a rat's nest in the house and was about to
sweep it away; Rabbi Yehuda Hanossi told her to leave them
Now it is undeniably true that the calf's purpose in life was
indeed to be eaten. That was what it was bred for. This is
neither wrong nor cruel; on the contrary, it assures the
success of the species. It has been noted that if the entire
world were Jewish, pigs would soon become extinct. There are
no philosophical problems in slaughtering cows. Likewise,
disposing of rats in the house is perfectly justified.
Yet nevertheless it was these events that brought punishment
and atonement to Rabbi Yehuda Hanossi. For treatment of
animals is not meant to be determined on a purely
philosophical level. The purpose of the mitzvah of kindness
to animals is to inculcate one in the trait of compassion.
That cows are destined to be eaten is irrelevant. When faced
with a dewy-eyed, bleating, tender calf, one's mercies should
be aroused. Likewise, although there is every reason to
dispose of rats, it is admirable if one feels sympathy for
the poor little things and cannot bring oneself to do so.
There are two types of mitzvos: chukkim and
mishpotim. Chukkim are Divine decrees which must be
performed purely and simply because Hashem said so. The
reason why we do not eat pork is that G-d forbade it, not
because it tastes repulsive, which it certainly doesn't (can
five billion gentiles be wrong? Okay, I guess they can, but
not in this case). Mishpotim, on the other hand, are
rational acts about which the gemora states that "had
the Torah not written them, they would have deserved to be
written." Although it is still important to fulfill them with
an awareness that it is done so on G-d's authority, the
emotions behind the mitzvos must be felt. Someone who is kind
to people purely because the Torah says so, without feeling
any sense of altruism, is missing the point entirely.
So now, I think I know where I went wrong. I've studied the
topic of how we should relate to animals in great depth. I've
lectured and written about countless philosophical aspects of
being kind to animals. But that's not what counts. It was
about time that I didn't just engage in studies about animal
suffering but began to actually care about it. I should have
felt sympathy for the ibex, as did the lion keeper, rather
than just be excited and think about fodder for an essay.
Hey, am I imagining it, or is my neck starting to feel
Several months after writing this essay, I was walking along
the beach at La Jolla in California, watching the local seals
basking in the sun. Suddenly I noticed a sea slug that had
been stranded by the outgoing tide and was quickly drying to
its death in the sun. Ardent naturalist as I am, there are
still animals that repulse me, and the large, gooey sea-
slugs fall into that category. I was about to move on, when I
suddenly remembered this essay. Gritting my teeth, I bent
down and gingerly picked up the sea slug. I paused for a
moment to contemplate its ordeal and summon some sympathy for
it -- after all, if I was just doing this for intellectual
reasons, then I would be making the same mistake again. Then
I threw it into the sea, and yelled out triumphantly, "Made a
difference to that one!"
Rabbi Nosson Slifkin learns 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