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...

  • Music US & Canada Lady Gaga Accepts ADL Award: ‘Your Philosophies Are So in Line With Ours’ (VIDEO)

    Lady Gaga Accepts ADL Award: ‘Your Philosophies Are So in Line With Ours’ (VIDEO)

    Pop superstar Lady Gaga on Thursday accepted an award from Jewish human rights group the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) on behalf of her Born This Way Foundation, which strives to combat bullying among young people. “Your philosophies are so in line with ours,” she said of the ADL upon accepting the Making a Difference Award in a videotaped message, which was shown at a ceremony in New York City. “We want to help young people know that their feelings and who they are on [...]

    Read more →
  • Music Personalities At 80, Singer-Songwriter Leonard Cohen’s Jewish Roots ‘Very Much Intact’

    At 80, Singer-Songwriter Leonard Cohen’s Jewish Roots ‘Very Much Intact’

    JNS.org – Eighty years young, Leonard Cohen fits many descriptions—singer, songwriter, poet, novelist, monk. From his Jewish upbringing in Canada to the present day, Cohen has always explored his spiritual side. This month, the singer-songwriter released the CD (May 12) and iTunes (on May 8 of this year) formats of his latest album, Can’t Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour, which features live recordings from his world tours in 2012 and 2013. Last year, Cohen’s Popular Problems was voted by Rolling Stone [...]

    Read more →
  • Europe Sports FIFA Head Says Israel Should Not be Booted From World Soccer Association

    FIFA Head Says Israel Should Not be Booted From World Soccer Association

    JNS.org – Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) head Sepp Blatter said during a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that contrary to Palestinian complaints, Israel has not violated any FIFA statutes and should not be suspended from international soccer’s governing body. “We should not come to one federation saying we will exclude them,” said Blatter, the Jerusalem Post reported. “If the national association is fulfilling its obligations then there is no need to intervene,” he said. “I’m on a [...]

    Read more →
  • Featured Middle East Sports Jewish Rights Group Slams Palestinian Attempts to Suspend Israel From FIFA

    Jewish Rights Group Slams Palestinian Attempts to Suspend Israel From FIFA

    Jewish human rights group the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) said on Tuesday it was “appalled” by a Palestinian Football Association initiative to suspend Israel from FIFA, calling it another “front waged in the context of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign.” “We are appalled at the temerity of the Palestinan Football Association (PFA) demand that FIFA suspend Israel at your forthcoming Congress in Zurich,” wrote the group’s international relations director, Dr. Shimon Samuels, in a letter to FIFA President Joseph [...]

    Read more →
  • Theater US & Canada Star of Auschwitz Thriller Says ‘God Was Holding the Hand of Every Jew in the Gas Chamber’ (VIDEO)

    Star of Auschwitz Thriller Says ‘God Was Holding the Hand of Every Jew in the Gas Chamber’ (VIDEO)

    The lead actor in Son of Saul, an Auschwitz thriller featured at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, told the UK’s The Guardian that he believes God was “holding the hand” of each Jew who died in the Nazi gas chambers during the Holocaust. “I do not for one nanosecond like to pretend that God is off the hook. He could and should have stopped it at a much earlier stage,” Géza Röhrig, 48, said. ”But I would not be able to get [...]

    Read more →
  • Music Backstreet Boys Singer Howie D Gushes Over Masada During Israel Trip

    Backstreet Boys Singer Howie D Gushes Over Masada During Israel Trip

    Backstreet Boys singer Howie Dorough took to Instagram on Tuesday to marvel about climbing the famed Masada fortress with his band during their visit to Israel, where they will perform this week for the first time. The group’s second day of sightseeing in the Jewish state included the Masada hike, and taking a mud bath at the Dead Sea. A picture from the band’s official Twitter page shows the five singers covered in mud. While relaxing in the Dead Sea, [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews US & Canada ‘Arms and the Dudes:’ New Book, Film Detail How Ex-Orthodox Yeshiva Guys Became Top Suppliers for Afghan Army

    ‘Arms and the Dudes:’ New Book, Film Detail How Ex-Orthodox Yeshiva Guys Became Top Suppliers for Afghan Army

    A new book and its upcoming film adaptation tell the true story of how three former yeshiva students who habitually smoked marijuana scored a $300 million contract from the U.S. government to supply weapons for the Afghan Army, the New York Daily News reported on Sunday. Arms and the Dudes details how the Miami Beach potheads became “the most unlikely gunrunners in history,” according to the book’s author, investigative reporter Guy Lawson. The tale begins with Efraim Diveroli, nephew of [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Theater Natalie Portman: Israel-Themed ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness’ Not Political

    Natalie Portman: Israel-Themed ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness’ Not Political

    JNS.org – Natalie Portman, who directs and stars in the new Hebrew-language film adaptation of author Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness, says that despite Oz’s record as a vocal left-wing critic of Israel, her film is not political. Like the book on which it is based, Portman’s film is about a young boy at the time of the founding of the state of Israel. “I think the movie is very much about this very particular, specific family story. Of [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.