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2 Av 5760 - August 3, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Opinion & Comment
The Torah Universe: The Hunt

by Rabbi Nosson Slifkin

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 asked.

"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 pain.

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.

Until today.

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 was doing.

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 significant identity.

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 be.

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 better?


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 Targum Press.

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