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August 14, 2013 8:42 am

Pangs of Conscience in the Plains of Serengeti

avatar by Shmuley Boteach

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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.

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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.

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