OpinionTorah Portion

Reflections on safari

The hunter, the hunted and human sensitivity.

A lion in its natural habitat. Photo: Shutterstock
A lion in its natural habitat. Photo: Shutterstock
Rabbi Yossy Goldman
Rabbi Yossy Goldman
Rabbi Yossy Goldman is Life Rabbi Emeritus of Sydenham Shul in Johannesburg and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. He is the author of From Where I Stand, on the weekly Torah readings, available from Ktav.com and Amazon.

Living in South Africa has some fringe benefits. This week, during the July school vacation period, my wife Rochel and I joined some of our children and grandchildren for a few days near the world-famous Kruger National Park.

Over the years, I have spoken from the pulpit in my shul after returning from such safari holidays in “the bush.” There are many life lessons we can learn from these extraordinary interactions with animals in their natural habitat. We are visitors in their home and privileged to explore how they live and observe their often-hidden nature and the Creator’s world in action.

When our children were growing up, it was always a pleasure and privilege to take them on vacation to Kruger Park. Now, it is equally special to be there with our grandchildren, some of whom are enjoying their first such experience.

As I write these lines in a rural resort near the game reserve, I can hear monkeys playing—or fighting, I’m not actually sure. Last night, we went to sleep with the sounds of hyenas growling in the distance. Don’t worry, we are safely ensconced behind secure fences.

The world loves animals. We protect animal rights. We rise in righteous indignation when we witness the abuse of any animal. And rightly so. 

But in this week’s Torah reading, Pinchas, a significant part of the parshah deals with the laws of the sacrifices to be performed in the Holy Temple on Shabbat and the hagim. Yes, animal sacrifices are sanctioned by the Torah, the same Torah which teaches us to be sensitive to animals in the laws known as tzaar baalei chaim. The Torah instructs us to offer up animals on the altar of God at specific times and for various occasions.

I know not everyone will agree, but Jews believe there is a higher purpose in all of this, and this is not the place for a full treatment of the subject.

My point today is this: We love animals, but are we animals? While it is nothing short of awe-inspiring to watch beasts of prey in the wild hunting for their next meal or protecting their young and each other when under attack, we are still human beings endowed and blessed with a higher intelligence and the expectations that come with it.

The Mishna in Pirkei Avot teaches that there are many good characteristics we can and should learn from the animal kingdom, but still, we are not animals.

Here on safari, the big question visitors ask one another is “Did you see a kill?” Did you see a lion or a leopard chasing and catching an animal, which is their basic form of sustenance in the wild? This is considered the most exciting experience for anyone on safari. I’m sure it can be very exciting, even spine-tingling, but why must we see a kill? Are we so bloodthirsty?

We once saw the aftermath of such a kill. A group of lions were feeding on a buffalo they had caught. One of my young sons commented, “The buffalos are sitting shiva.” It was a funny remark, but also telling. His value system was sensitive to the victim. Yes, we fully understand and accept that this is part of nature and God’s plan. Still, we must never lose touch with our human sensitivity.

I think of the difference between your average shochet, a Jewish kosher slaughterer, and the typical non-kosher slaughterhouse worker. Both kill animals professionally, but the difference in the way they go about it is stark.

The shochet sharpens his knife carefully to ensure there is not the slightest nick that would cause any unnecessary pain to the animal. He devoutly recites a blessing before doing his work and is, generally speaking, one of the most religiously and morally refined individuals in any Jewish community.

Your typical slaughterhouse worker has no such compunctions. More often than not, he is a rough fellow, a coarse character you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley. He will kill the animal in any which way. Sensitivity is not his game.

My late father-in-law was a rabbi and shochet in Cleveland for many years. We once overheard a conversation between him and workers in a chicken factory. My father-in-law was about to go home for the night, but before he did, he made a point of feeding the chickens. The workers laughed at him.

“Hey Rabbi Kazen, tomorrow you’re gonna kill those chickens. What’s the point of feeding then now?” they asked. Rabbi Kazen patiently replied, “Yes, tomorrow we will shecht them, but nevertheless, now they are hungry and we must feed them.”

On a few occasions, we watched him at his work. He held every chicken sensitively, almost lovingly. But he did what he had to do.

The story is told of a non-Jewish fellow who testified that he saw how the holy Baal Shem Tov would sharpen his shochet’s knife not with water as is the usual practice, but with his own tears.

We are not obliged to be vegetarians. I’ll have my cholent with meat, please. We accept that beasts of prey function by natural instinct and this is the way of the world. At the same time, we live by the Torah’s rules and regulations of tzaar baalei chaim, which command us to be sensitive to the pain of any living creature. While this does seem contradictory, and there is a tension there, we are taught to develop a healthy balance on this issue.

So, enjoy the safari, even if you don’t see a kill.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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