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18 Sivan 5760 - June 21, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Opinion & Comment
The Torah Universe: Miracle Enough

by Rabbi Nosson Slifkin

"You must be out of your mind," said my good friend and chavrusa Yehuda Leib to me. "You have an opportunity like that, and you want to turn it down?"

The opportunity to which he was referring was an offer that I had been given to travel to East Africa. I had been expressing my lack of enthusiasm for the suggestion. "Look," I replied, "You know how much I love animals, but I just can't see what the big deal is about seeing them in Africa. I see them in the zoo all the time!"

This was true. I had recently begun developing outreach programs in the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, delivering shiurim about Torah lessons to be learned from the animal kingdom. Seeing wild animals was therefore not a novelty for me.

"How can you possibly compare seeing an elephant in the zoo to seeing it in the wild?" asked Yehuda Leib in a shocked voice. "It's totally different."

"How would you know? You've never seen them in the wild," I pointed out. "And besides, why should it be different?"

"Trust me," he said. "You'll see that I'm right."

Two weeks later, I found myself in a small safari van bumping along the track in Tsavo West National Park in Kenya. Together with the other intrepid explorers, I was standing up in the van and scanning our surroundings for wildlife from the open roof. We had already been in the vast game reserve for a half hour, but we had not yet seen any animals.

"Hey, look at that!" I suddenly shouted excitedly, "A giraffe!"

Our driver took us closer to the creature. It towered above us as it munched nonchalantly on the leaves of a tree. We chattered excitedly, our cameras snapping away. After watching it for several minutes, we moved on.

Yehuda Leib was right. Seeing animals in the wild was different from seeing them in the zoo. But it wasn't clear why. I have seen many giraffes in my life. This giraffe was neither bigger nor markedly different in any way from any of them. Yet it gave me an immensely greater thrill to see it.

Several possible explanations presented themselves to me. First, there was the thrill of the hunt. The animals here were not in an expected place in a cage; we were hunting twenty thousand square kilometers of game park for them. Second, the sweeping vistas of the African savanna certainly made for a better backdrop than a zoo enclosure, even a good one. Third, we were meeting the giraffe on its own terms, in its own habitat, rather than seeing it on display in ours.

After further contemplation, however, it seems to me that none of these are the direct reason why this giraffe was a greater thrill. Rather, I think that these factors enabled me to look afresh at a creature that I had been taking for granted.

A giraffe should always be an enthralling sight. With its towering height, beautifully patterned skin, and stumpy horns numbering between three and five, the giraffe meets every criteria for an interesting sight.

In fact, according to the work Sichas Chullin, the giraffe may have been the tachash whose skin was used in the Mishkan. The Yerushalmi states that the tachash is identical to an animal called the keresh, which the gemora identifies as a very tall, kosher, non-domesticated animal which has a single horn, as the tachash. Sichas Chullin brings proofs that the tachash's famous single horn was in addition to another two, which suggests the colorful, three-horned giraffe as the candidate.

Yes, a giraffe is undoubtedly an interesting sight. But we possess an unfortunate capacity to become numbed to interesting sights. Seeing animals at the zoo had become a matter of ticking off a checklist of the animals to be seen. Not within memory had I actually watched a giraffe and appreciated its beauty. It was only the thrill of the hunt and the African setting that opened my eyes to doing that.

This reminds me of an anecdote that a relative of mine, Rabbi Yisroel HaLevi Cohen, told me. As a young schoolboy in England, he was once walking with his class on a school trip, when the teacher called to them all to stop. "Cohen!" he called out. "What do you see?"

"Nothing, sir!" replied young Cohen in bewilderment.

"Nothing?" snapped the teacher. "Are you blind, boy?"

"No, sir!"

"Do you have eyes?"

"Yes, sir!"

"So tell me what you see!"

"Erm, trees?"

"Very good! What else?

"Um, leaves on the trees, branches, grass, flowers, rocks."

"Excellent!" barked the teacher, and ordered the class to move on.

Rabbi Cohen related this tale to me in the context of an observation that I told him about Chovos Halevovos, the classical work of philosophy by Rabbeinu Bachya. One section of this work is called "Shaar Habechinah," the "gate" (task) of contemplation. There he discusses how it is man's duty to contemplate the natural world and thereby improve his faith in G-d.

In this context, Rabbeinu Bachya discusses some examples of remarkable natural phenomena such as the human digestive system. Now, I don't know about you, but I never considered the human digestive system to be especially remarkable. After all, it's simply a matter of biological processes, which can in turn be explained in terms of chemistry, which can in turn be explained by physics. It seemed a little strange to cite this as evidence of G-d's wisdom.

But after further thought, I realized that Rabbeinu Bachya was also aware that it can be explained scientifically. Unlike me, that awareness did not numb him to the wonder of the whole business.

. . . Which probably has a lot to do with why Rabbeinu Bachya, in discussing the process of using the natural world as a means of improving our awareness of the Creator, did not call it "the gate (process) of amazement" but "the gate of contemplation." Everything is amazing; it merely requires that we give it sufficient contemplation. This point was eloquently put by the nineteenth century poet Walt Whitman: "I believe that a leaf of grass is no less than the journey- work of the stars,/ And the pismire [ant] is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren,/ And the cow crunching with depress'd head surpasses any statue,/ And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels."

But for the finest expression of this point, as well as a lesson about its role in Judaism, we must turn to the unsurpassably eloquent words of Rabbi Shamshon Raphael Hirsch. In an essay entitled "From the Notebook of a Wandering Jew" which is a letter to someone referred to as N., he writes the following:

How could you think, my dear N., that your letter would still find me within my four walls? "The winter is over, the blossoms are showing, the time for singing has come;" could your friend stay in the house? No, my dear. Even as a child I envied our forefathers when, on the seder night, my father presented them to me with their feet sandalled, their loins girded, the wanderer's staff in their hands, the bread- bundles on their shoulders; I would have given the sweetest charoses for a drink of bitter water if I could have wandered thus for forty years with them in the desert. I almost believe that all you homebodies would one day have to atone for your staying indoors, and when you would desire entrance to see the marvels of Heaven, they would ask you, "Did you see the marvels of G-d on earth?" Then, ashamed, you would mumble, "We missed that opportunity."

How different were our Rabbis in this respect. How they breathed and felt, thought and lived in G-d's marvelous Nature. How they wanted to awaken our senses for all that is sublime and beautiful in Creation. How they wanted to teach us to fashion a wreath of adoration for G-d out of the morning's rays and the evening blush, out of the daylight and the night shadows, out of the star's glimmer and the flower's scent, out of the roar of the sea and the rumble of the thunder, the flash of the lightning. How they wanted to demonstrate to us that every creature was a preacher of His power, a monitor of our duties; what a Divine revelation they made of the book of Nature.

The art of appreciation. It might be difficult to master, but it makes the world of difference in enabling us to see a whole different world.

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 Targum Press.

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