Pangs of Conscience in the Plains of Serengeti

August 14, 2013 8:42 am 0 comments

Serengeti National Park. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Readers of my column are aware that I returned to Africa to further my understanding of the Rwandan genocide and highlight the slaughter, so that we can learn from this deplorable record of atrocity. But I ended up learning, perhaps even more, about human and animal nature from the plains of the Serengeti in Tanzania.

Charles Darwin believed that we are all caught in a struggle for survival where the powerful prey on the weak. This idea was one he garnered from watching animals, primarily and famously, in the Galapagos islands (I wrote a column on my visit to the Galapagos that can be found here).

If only he had come to the plains of the Serengeti.

I have previously been on safari in African countries, primarily the excellent Kruger Park in South Africa. But nothing prepares you for the sheer brilliance and violence on display in the Serengeti.

Today we saw three Cheetah move, with seemingly infinite patience, through the tall grass of the savannah, toward a Thomson gazelle. In one short final burst, they attacked in an instant and devoured it almost totally in just fifteen minutes. When they departed, the vultures appeared almost instantly along with other scavengers who were happy to feast on the scraps.

What went through my mind was that I was bearing living witness to every platitude I had ever heard. How only the fittest survive. How naiveté can be deadly (the gazelle stood enjoying the shade utterly oblivious to the impending disaster). And, more than anything else, the rewards of patience. The Cheetah crouched idly in the grass, moving only a step or two every few minutes, slowly and stealthily encroaching on its prey until it utterly destroyed its target.

I, who have never excelled at patience, was in awe. We were to witness the same sneak attack from a female lion who, for over an hour, moved so slowly through a ridge in the grass, drawing ever nearer to an antelope. Baking in the sun and breathing heavily to deal with the heat (lions don’t sweat and regulate their temperature through respiration, or so I’m told), she waited and crouched in order to kill the antelope and feed her cubs. And after that monumental exertion, all was for naught as the antelope, seemingly oblivious to her approach, suddenly darted away.

But there was another emotion that I shared with my wife as we watched and watched, anticipating the kill. Were we no different to Roman hordes gathering in the coliseum to witness bloody spectacle as entertainment? Were we not the ones who would have signaled ‘thumbs down,’ begging the emperor for permission for one gladiator to disembowel the other for our enjoyment? Were we innocent bystanders as the weak were being devoured by the strong?

OK, I get it. This is the law of the jungle, and I’m not meant to intervene. The beauty of the Serengeti is its utterly natural habitat, nearly unspoiled by human interference. We were meant to be spectators, innocent bystanders, onlooking tourists to the working of nature.

And yet… Was not human society built on something utterly different that proved Darwin wrong?

That human beings developed something called ethics, which mandated, contrary to Nietzschean ideas of the ubermensch, that the strong are meant to use their might to protect the weak. That we are not animals but are endowed with a soul that gives us an innate conscience, a feeling of right and wrong, a desire to intercede when the powerful are guilty of injustice against the weak.

With all the tourists watching in utter silence as the cheetahs and lions approached their prey, I whispered to my wife, perhaps only half jokingly, that my mind was drifting toward the famous doctrine known as R2P, or “Responsibility to Protect.”

Samantha Power, the world’s foremost voice against genocide, was just confirmed as America’s new Ambassador to the United Nations. She is a personal friend and I campaigned hard for her confirmation.

Once, I studied with her what I believe to be the only ancient source for R2P, namely, the Bible’s injunction in Leviticus, “Thou shalt not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” Now, a gazelle is not my neighbor and an antelope is not my human brother. But it made me think all the same.

Was the law of the jungle the law of the land, or did God, who created animal nature, also instill within humankind an aspiration for something higher? I’m writing this column sitting in a camp enjoying the warm breeze of the Serengeti plains in the near pitch darkness that is beginning to engulf me. The staff at the outstanding Thomson Safaris, who are our tour providers, have provided us every comfort so that we can enjoy all this magnificent beauty in tranquility.

Leonard, our guide from Thomson, is a walking encyclopedia of information. I have not been able to stump him on a single question on the ecology and animals that surround us (I told him he would make a great Talmud scholar). And he and his colleagues have demonstrated a patience with us and our kosher dietary and Sabbath requirements that is highly respectful and quite exemplary.

So here you have it. The animal and the human. The predatory and the compassionate. All in one setting. And what separates them? That we men and women have a commitment to the higher aspiration of the uniquely human qualities of knowledge, compassion, and human refinement.

Last month our dog of thirteen years, which was a gift to my children from the singer Michael Jackson, passed away. I, who once wrote a column arguing that we Americans sometimes value our pets over human relationships, wept along with my wife and all my kids. Seeing my children in pain at the loss of our pet was soul-destroying and we did our best to comfort them while nursing grief of our own.

It turns out that while animal life is not the equal of a human life and should never be used to supplant the unique comforts of brotherly warmth, there is still something absolutely magical and spiritual about the animals that surround us. And nowhere does one see such magic like the incredible, endless savannah of the plains of the Serengeti.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, whom The Washington Post calls ‘the most famous Rabbi in America’ heads This World: The Values Network, an organization dedicated to promoting universal Jewish values globally. He is the author of “Moses of Oxford” with its lengthy discussion of evolutionary ethics and morality. Follow his twitter feed on Africa @Rabbismuley.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Arts and Culture Spirituality/Tradition Removing Jesus’ Jewish Identity From Artwork

    Removing Jesus’ Jewish Identity From Artwork

    In a strong statement that challenges the historic divide between Christianity and Judaism, Pope Francis recently proclaimed, “Inside every Christian is a Jew.” But if you look at Renaissance artworks that depict Jesus, you will not find any evidence of a Jew inside the Christianized Jesus — even though the Gospels in the New Testament tell us that Jesus was Jewish to the core. Getting that point across to the public is a daunting task, as I learned in interviews I [...]

    Read more →
  • Music Personalities Recycling His Roots

    Recycling His Roots

    JNS.org – Having started his career playing on his family’s pots and pans, Jewish musician Billy Jonas has maintained this homemade performance ethic while spreading his messages of simple living and environmentalism to a shared home throughout the world. After beginning in the kitchen, Jonas soon moved to the music room, where he picked up the piano, guitar, and trombone. These days, the multi-talented multi-instrumentalist plays on with pretty much anything he can find, including cans, bottles buckets, and other recycled-object [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Personalities Jewish Renewal Movement Founder’s Insights Form a New Guide for Senior Living

    Jewish Renewal Movement Founder’s Insights Form a New Guide for Senior Living

    JNS.org – Sara Davidson’s The December Project is a new book that should be read by all senior citizens, and by those who hope to live a long life, for it raises a question that most of us have not been taught how to answer: What should we do in that final stage of our lives? Many of us continue working past the traditional retirement age of 65, not because we need the money and not because we find the [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Jewish History Why the Holocaust Occurred in Germany, and Why So Few Resisted (REVIEW)

    Why the Holocaust Occurred in Germany, and Why So Few Resisted (REVIEW)

    It’s hard to make a new contribution to the field of Holocaust studies,  but German historian Götz Aly accomplishes just that in Why the Germans, Why the Jews? His premise is that the origins of the Holocaust were rooted in the specific anti-Semitism found in Germany in the decades and centuries before World War II. Aly (who is not Jewish) seeks to prove his theory by studying only pre-Holocaust history, and tracing how the German people’s envy and hatred of [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Looking at Anti-Israel Celebrities and Their Brands

    Looking at Anti-Israel Celebrities and Their Brands

    JNS.org – During the current conflict in Gaza a number of celebrities have voiced their opinions in support of either the Israeli or Palestinian positions. But others—be it during Operation Protective Edge or at other times—have gone further than simply supporting the Palestinians by actively supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, making false accusations about the Jewish state, ignoring Israel’s position on the conflict, or justifying the actions of the terrorist group Hamas. Many of these [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Sports Israeli UFC Fighter Returns to Jewish State to Rejoin IDF

    Israeli UFC Fighter Returns to Jewish State to Rejoin IDF

    JNS.org – Days after winning his Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) featherweight bout against Steven Siler on July 26, Israeli-born mixed martial arts competitor Noad Lahat boarded a plane for his native country, choosing to temporarily exit UFC’s octagonal cage to rejoin the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) as a paratrooper for its operation against Hamas in Gaza. Except he didn’t actually consider it a choice. “When [our] home is in danger, there is no other way for us [but to serve [...]

    Read more →
  • Education Why We Should Invest in Jewish Children

    Why We Should Invest in Jewish Children

    JNS.org – My wife Suzy and I will never forget our wedding day. It was not just the uplifting ceremony and beautiful party that left an indelible mark. Some life-altering advice that we received from one of our guests informed and shaped our lives from that day forward. My high school teacher, Rabbi Moshe Yagid, pulled us aside just before the chuppah and challenged us to choose one mitzvah that would be the foundation of our marriage and our lives. He explained [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Sports LeBron James’ New Coach Shaped by Summer on Kibbutz and Jewish ‘Life Lessons’

    LeBron James’ New Coach Shaped by Summer on Kibbutz and Jewish ‘Life Lessons’

    JNS.org – Influenced by his Jewish upbringing and a summer on a kibbutz, basketball coach David Blatt is embarking on his highest-profile challenge yet: coaching LeBron James, the four-time National Basketball Association (NBA) Most Valuable Player who has made waves for returning to his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers. After guiding Israel’s storied Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball franchise to its 51st Israeli league championship and 6th Euroleague title this past season, Blatt landed the Cavaliers head-coaching job in June. Just weeks later, [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.