Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

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...

  • Theater US & Canada Seth Rogen Unveils New Christmas Movie — ‘Will Open on Thanksgiving, Made by Jews’ (VIDEO)

    Seth Rogen Unveils New Christmas Movie — ‘Will Open on Thanksgiving, Made by Jews’ (VIDEO)

    Famed actor Seth Rogen on Tuesday unveiled with typical comic fanfare the trailer for his new Christmas film. The movie “was made by Jews… and opens on Thanksgiving,” Rogen pointed out on Twitter. The Night Before tells the tale of three “ride or die homies” celebrating one last debauchery-filled Christmas Eve reunion before they become too busy to keep up their annual tradition. In an effort to make the night as memorable as possible, they set out to find the “Nutcracka Ball – the […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish History Art Can Inspire Faith; It Can Also Empower Destructive Ideologies

    Art Can Inspire Faith; It Can Also Empower Destructive Ideologies

    A June 2015 art exhibit, “The Transformative Power of Art,” at the United Nations headquarters in New York City, harnessed the universal language of art to convey an important message: “Our fragile Mother Earth faces the devastating consequences of climate change, a defining challenge of our time.” The exhibit also included sixteen portraits of people from all over the world who have “contributed to the common good of humanity in one way or another and have transformed the way we […]

    Read more →
  • Israel Sports Israeli Muslim Cage Fighter Says He’s Proud to Fight Under Jewish State’s Flag

    Israeli Muslim Cage Fighter Says He’s Proud to Fight Under Jewish State’s Flag

    A 32-year-old Circassian Israeli Muslim Mixed Martial Arts fighter from Abu Ghosh says he takes pride in fighting under the Israeli flag, Israel’s Walla reported on Sunday. Like most Circassian Israelis, Jackie “the Punishment” Gosh was born Sunni Muslim. He became observant about eight years ago, and is now scrupulous in following his religion’s tenets, praying five times a day and fasting during the holy month of Ramadan. Gosh is also very proud of his Israeli nationality, and sees no contradiction between […]

    Read more →
  • Israel Music New Mark Skinner Documentary Explores Jewish, Arab Rap Scene in Israel (VIDEO)

    New Mark Skinner Documentary Explores Jewish, Arab Rap Scene in Israel (VIDEO)

    A new documentary explores the lives and work of Jewish and Arab rappers in Israel and how the ongoing conflict in the region has impacted their lyrics, the U.K.’s Jewish Chronicle reported on Thursday. Hip Hop in the Holy Land is a six-part series co-directed by Mike Skinner, the British frontman of hip-hop group The Streets, and produced by Noisey, a music channel published by Vice news. The first episode, published last week, shows Skinner meeting with Tamer Nafar, the founder of one of […]

    Read more →
  • Sports US & Canada 49ers Running Back Jarryd Hayne Apologizes for ‘Hurtful’ Jesus Tweets

    49ers Running Back Jarryd Hayne Apologizes for ‘Hurtful’ Jesus Tweets

    New 49ers running back and Australian rugby star Jarryd Hayne apologized on Wednesday for a tweet in which he raised the age-old myth that Jews were historically responsible for Jesus Christ’s death. Reaching out to his Jewish fans, and the chairman of the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation Commission, Hayne tweeted: “To the Jewish community @DvirAbramovich #WeAreAllOne.” Underneath, he keenly included a screenshot of a text message to elaborate on his apology: “I sincerely apologize for my tweets on July 1. I […]

    Read more →
  • Theater Israeli Actress Gal Gadot Recalls Being ‘Extremely Surprised’ at Winning Miss Israel Contest

    Israeli Actress Gal Gadot Recalls Being ‘Extremely Surprised’ at Winning Miss Israel Contest

    Israeli actress Gal Gadot reminisced about her childhood in Israel during an interview published in this month’s edition of Vanity Fair. “I don’t remember this, but my mom told me that when I was three they threw a party on the rooftop of the house. They put me to bed, and I heard people coming into the house and no one came to me. I went to the rooftop and took a hose and I started to spray water on everyone, just […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Features Wounded Israeli Soldiers Unite With American Veterans to Help Their ‘Brothers for Life’ Heal (INTERVIEW)

    Wounded Israeli Soldiers Unite With American Veterans to Help Their ‘Brothers for Life’ Heal (INTERVIEW)

    An Israeli organization is helping wounded U.S. veterans move past their physical and psychological challenges by connecting them with injured Israeli soldiers who understand what they’ve been through. “What we discovered very early is that there’s no ‘professional, psychiatrist, social worker’ or anything like that [or] pills that can come even close to helping a soldier who fought in combat, who was wounded, who lost his friends. No one can help him like another person who’s been through exactly what he has,” Rabbi Chaim Levine, […]

    Read more →
  • Relationships World Researchers Say Women Less Likely Than Men to Kill Hitler, if They Could Travel Back in Time

    Researchers Say Women Less Likely Than Men to Kill Hitler, if They Could Travel Back in Time

    Women are less likely than men to want to kill Nazi leader Adolph Hitler if given the ability to travel back in time, a recently published research paper revealed. The paper analyzed 40 studies involving 6,100 respondents in a time-travel thought experiment, the New York Post reported on Friday. While 60 percent of men said they would theoretically be willing to kill Hitler, only 55 percent of women said they would be comfortable doing the same. The paper was published in the Personality and […]

    Read more →