Monday, October 26, 2009

Noah 5770:Thoughts on the Game Reserves.

Noah 5770: Random Thoughts on the Game Reserves.

This week we have the story of Noah. Most are familiar with the story of the man who builds a very large boat, fills it with animals and his family at the orders of God, and thus survives a world encompassing flood, saving most species in the process. God tells Noah.

1. And the Lord said to Noah, Come you and all your house into the ark; for you have I seen righteous before me in this generation.
2. Of every clean beast you shall take to you seven pairs, the male and his female; and of beasts that are not clean one pair, the male and his female.
3. Of birds also of the air by seven pairs, the male and the female; to keep seed alive upon the face of all the earth.
4. For in another seven days I will cause it to rain upon the earth forty days and forty nights; and every living substance that I have made will I destroy from off the face of the earth.[Genesis 9]

Madikwe Game reserve in northwestern South Africa was one of the interesting places I've spent my two weeks of Safari. Like the other places I spent time in Africa, Sabi sands and Timbavarti, It reminded me a lot of Noah's ark, and the preservation of the species that God told Noah to do. Being there and experiencing this place I also had to think that poor Noah had his hands full, even with God bringing miracles.

The thing about animals I learned at Madikwe in particular was that things are not simple. Often humans get this idea that animals that do not eat meat are somehow more peaceful than the carnivores.Leopard and Lion, Hyena and Wild Dog are thought to be violent compared to the herbivores like hippopotamus, zebra, cape buffalo and elephant. I learned that is far from the truth. Indeed the number one animal to cause human death in all of Africa is the hippopotamus. I knew this going there. What I did not know was the aggressive nature of other animals, often for the right to mate, the right to be part of a group or for territory. At Maidkwe, while photographing a stately Kudu, nibbling on some grass I heard a noise not far away, unlike anything I had ever heard. Across the road, two zebra were fighting, kicking and biting each other, and far from jest. THe loser of this fight was no longer back or white, but was covered with red.

One night while being escorted back by the security detail to my room in the Sabi Sands reserve, I learned another important lesson. In other parts of the world, such security might be about humans attacking humans, here we were told it was about the animals attacking humans. While not believing that, one night after dinner, several of us were escorted back to our room. Suddenly, the guard stopped and ordered all of us to the doorway of one room, while he called for help. In the total darkness, his flashlight had found a bull elephant on property, munching away. With our ranger and another security guard they did chase away the elephant. Had the elephant been angered the Ranger would have had a charging elephant bearing down on him. Although we got to our rooms safely, there was the evidence of the elephant the next day. Every tree had been uprooted, stripped of its bark and leaves and the the broken wood left all over the camp. The elephant had come back in the night, and eaten his way through camp leaving his trashed trees behind. Elephants can attack people and other animals, but they can do immense violence to ecosystems by leaving nothing but waste behind.

We read of Noah's generation:

12. And God looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its way upon the earth.
13. And God said to Noah, The end of all flesh has come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth.[Genesis 9]

What is meant by violence is debated by the Rabbis. Yet in the bush, I learned that all flesh whether is eats other flesh or plants or both are prone to violence, to each other, violence to other species and violence even to their ecosystem. Nothing has changed. Being in South Africa, I had reminders of the violence that humans can do in memorials to a past not as enlightened as its present. In Zambia, all I had to do was look across the Zambezi river to Zimbabwe on the other side to be reminded again. In the reserves, watching a leopard spring at its prey, wild dogs dismember and devour a impala, cape buffalo butting horns, a herd of elephants attacking the buffalo for a waterhole, and the hippos then charging those bathing elephants all points to violence in any species has not disappeared.

Noah, it was said righteous in his generation [Gen 9:9] The debate since rabbinic times has been if he was completely righteous, or righteous compared to those around him. Either way, Noah did something different than those around him. At the end of Last week's portion we are told of Noah's generation

5. And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.
All Noah needed to do to be more righteous than his generation is to stop for one second and say to himself: "I'm not going to be evil right now" or "I'm not going to be violent right now." The animals are violent, as often we are violent not because we choose to be but because it is a biological part of who we are. What we choose is not to be violent or to transform something violent into something less violent, then maybe something less violent than that. In our distant past we were not that different than those Zebras, fighting and shedding each other's blood to determine who is superior among ourselves. In the not too distant past one sign of that dominance of one person over another was not which humans you killed, but which animals you killed. Even a hundred years ago, To go on safari, kill and stuff the "big five" game animals was a sign of status. Yet today, guns are not allowed in these game reserves, except for the protective equipment used by rangers. Today it is cameras that have replaced guns. In my several thousand exposures, I did bag the big five, as does many a visitor to these game reserves. In some sense, the photos of leopards and lion that will eventually end up on my wall will give me a bit of respect and status similar to actually killing the animals. My telephoto zoom lens, is far from violence.

We are told in midrash that things were different in the Ark. For some reason normal animal behavior did not exist. Upon exiting the ark, such things. change to normal. In one story,. the second the lions leave the ark they attack Noah. [Genesis R. 30:6] For some reason animal behavior changed on the ark. While it is said there were provisions for the animals and Noah's family, it mentions provisions for herbivores, not the carnivores, who must have either gone hungry or eaten plants on the ark. Midrash mentions there was no copulation on the ark, though I cannot find somewhere that mentions the animals stopped their mating and domination contests, though they must have. Many of these animals have multiple female and single males mating groups. Some have matriarchs instead of patriarchs. All this would have changed, but as the story of the lion attack, once they are free of the ark ,they revert to their normal behaviors.

I found my time in the wild wonderful, My love of wildlife photography got its fill for a while. But as I thought I Heathrow Airport, seeing the newspapers in the lounge I'm also saddened. Noah consciously made a decision not to be evil all the time, beyond that we have no idea how righteous he was. Be he did make that conscious choice. IT seems so rare these days to make that same choice in the world. THe same animal drive for sexual partners, territory, and status and dominance still abound in Human society, Like south African elephants, we lay waste to the world around us, Like the wholesale slaughter of elephants in Zimbabwe, genocide happens in many places around the world. we make pacts and treaties, but they are little more than arks: when their boundaries are crossed the violence shows up again. What my camera is to the gun does not seem to have many equivalents elsewhere. Noah's story in many ways is futile, as everything goes back to violence not long after the ark is emptied.

In reading Noah this year, I truly don't know what to think, or to hope.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Drash Breshit 5770: Why This is Late.

I had entirely planned to get another Shlomo's Drash done while on vacation last week, but things conspired against me. Well actually one thing did. The one thing took me totally by surprise, and I then began to wonder about that something in the African bush where I was on photo safari.

It started with a surprise that shouldn’t have been. The surprise came in the one piece of high tech to be prevalent even in the thickest jungle: the internet. At our safari lodge, I received a short message from Sweetie who was back home saying simply SHABBAT SHALOM. It was in that instant I realized I had totally forgotten Shabbat.

Interestingly, Genesis 1 ends with the creation of first animals and then men and women on day six. Then we read in Chapter 2

1. Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. 2. And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had made; and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had made. 3. And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it; because that in it He had rested from all his work which God created and made.

The Sabbath was the last thing made in creation. I’ve wondered why for quite a long time. My experience in the bush of South Africa had me thinking differently about that. Even with staying in luxury accommodations in the game loges throughout South Africa, this was a drop of civilization in a very large ocean of wilderness. Elephants, snakes, baboons, impalas and even leopards can walk into the lodge property any time they want – there are no fences here to stop them. Verner monkeys make the roofs their home just to steal food from guests, and occasionally the chef of the dining room. On these game reserves, we humans are in their world.

The world of the African Bush parallels the world the one ancient man made their home. For hunter gatherers it was tough but everything was there to survive. Rabbi Meir in the second century of the Common Era thought the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was wheat. He may have got a point there. When Humanity tasted wheat, he needed an entirely different world to use this plant. No more picking fruit out of a tree or tracking down a kill. The food was placed in the same place every year and cut out of the ground, stored, then ground sifted, mixed with water or oil and then placed near a fire to be baked or fried. Cultivating the ground, Adam’s curse for eating of the fruit, makes sense if it was wheat. Adam was to toil on the earth to make from the fruit something resembling a food product. A seventh day of rest punctuated six days of that hard labor.

In the Bush there is night and day, the rainy season and the dry season. There is no other sense of time. And even as a visitor for a few days, I lost my own sense of time here, and forgot about when Shabbat started. The hunter gatherer did not need Shabbat; their existence was a form of the Garden of Eden since they were already there. Like the prides of Lions I saw, they hunted a little and rested a lot, so different than Agriculture.

Last Shabbat I realized that God created Shabbat last for a good reason. Only those who live in a world of work need a Shabbat. While the text does not say it, I believe after my trip to Africa that Shabbat was the relief from the work of a man or woman who had tasted from the fruit of Knowledge. Time is measured differently by agriculture and thus civilization than by the wild. Time conspired against me and hid itself from me.

I did not observe Shabbat last week fully, yet I learned to appreciate where Shabbat fits into our lives and into our sense of time more fully than any other Shabbat. Shabbat is an Island in time like Heschel believes, but only when we care to measure time.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Sukkot Simhat Torah 5770: thoughts on the banks of the Zambezi

If you wondered why there has been a gap in Shlomo’s Drashes, the reason is where I am sitting now. I’m sitting on a patio on the banks of the Zambezi River in Zambia. To my left, there is cloud of mist, the mist from Victoria Falls. The hills in the distance are another country, Zimbabwe. I’m traveling thorough southern Africa with my mom, to see things we’ve never seen before.
Before I left for Africa, I studied had one bit of Mishnah which has been on my mind.
Mishnah. All the seven days [of Sukkot] a man must make the sukkah his permanent abode and his house his temporary abode. If rain fell, when may one be permitted to leave it? When the porridge would become spoiled. They propounded a parable. To what can this be compared? To a slave who comes to fill the cup for his master, and he poured a pitcher over his face. [Sukkah 28b]

The parable gives a rather startling image. We as servants of God give an offering of staying in the sukkah, yet God come along and gets us soaked with rain. Not seemingly the most gracious master. Anyone who had ever lived in a sukkah is familiar with the concept, even if one only eats in their sukkah. Rain, cold, wind and even snow can make being in a sukkah not a fun experience. Then there are bugs and critters as well. I think a lot about bugs as I take my anti malarial pills, knowing something very tiny could end up rather lethal. The only thing more deadly than Malaria in Zambia is HIV. It’s spring here and there may not have been enough rain for breeding yet, but I am cautious nevertheless. One can look at the sukkah as all the things we are exposed to.
Yet this week I did get an experience which changed my thoughts about that sukkah and it had a lot to do with an elephant.
We are staying at a luxury hotel, and as a gift, our travel agent arranged for us to have the private dining area for dinner the first night we were here. It was an outdoor table right on the banks of the Zambezi. The structure around us was made of cast iron framework, with iron slats radiating out of a center point for a roof, yet leaving much of the sky visible. As the stars came out the only light were several citronella torches and the candle on our table. Besides that there was nothing but darkness. Looking up I could see the stars through the roof, and thought of a sukkah. I haven’t seen that many stars in a while. A tiny but rapidly moving dot was most likely the International Space Station. But besides that one manmade object there was nothing else in the sky but stars. A few bats flew by, one of them kicking over the candle accidently. But there was also a sound from the brush behind us. We heard tree branches breaking. It got closer and closer. Our waiter told us that it was an elephant. Around dessert time the elephant walked by the pseudo-sukkah on his way to a patch of grass by the river bank. I could only see his shape reflected in the shimmering waters of the river – it was otherwise completely dark. But my camera caught him on long exposure. He hung around for our dessert, and then headed back in to the brush.
The wonder of an elephant wandering by forced me to think differently about sukkahs. We can think of a sukkah as a way to look at creation in a different way than we usually do with walls around us. We experience it and things we never otherwise do – which is the whole point of my trip – to see animals in the wild I would not otherwise see. Of course I can see animals in zoos or televisions, but it obviously is not the same. It would seem in the aftermath of the birthday of the world, we are to experience it. Even if the Master throws a pitcher in our face, we were in front of the master. It reminds me of another parable about Hanina ben Dosa, a poor shulb of a rabbi, who also happens to be able to pray for people to get well, once he was studying with the great Rabbi Johanan b. Zakkai, the leader of the Rabbinic courts.
The son of R. Johanan ben Zakkai fell ill. He said to him: Hanina my son, pray for him that he may live. He put his head between his knees and prayed for him and he lived. Said R. Johanan ben Zakkai: If Ben Zakkai had stuck his head between his knees for the whole day, no notice would have been taken of him. Said his wife to him: Is Hanina greater than you are? He replied to her: No; but he is like a servant before the king, and I am like a nobleman before a king. [Berachoth 34b]

The thing about servants is they get access that even nobles do not, and thus can ask favors even nobles do not. Servants see things that noblemen never will. The time of Sukkot is our chance to observe with that kind of access the natural world before us. It may be an Elephant, or a coyote, a monkey or a squirrel. It may be the clouds above us or a beautiful sunset. It may be rain or falling leaves, or in the hemisphere I’m currently in, blooming flowers. We watch the cycles around us.
When thinking of cycles, I remembered another river. Over a decade ago, sitting in Rome on the banks of the Tiber, a teacher of mine described two rivers as representative of two societies. The Nile with its floods and droughts represents a cyclical world view of the Egyptians. The Tiber, on the other hand stays regular but flows forward linearly, describing the thought of the Romans. The clash of worlds between Cleopatra’s and Octavius Caesar’s was bound to set the course of western civilization towards linear progressive thinking was my teacher’s theory – and it was all bound up in the rivers that flowed by their windows.
The Zambezi is both, particularly here close to the falls. It is a powerfully flowing river, but it has its wet seasons and dry seasons. All the rocks I see now in the dry season would be under water in the peak of the wet season. The mist from the falls would obscure everything, even from a kilometer away. Yet the falls adds another element not true of the Nile or Tiber. A magnificent set of falls, an event that might seem like the end of the river, but is really a radical change. Time is best described as a paradox, both linear and cyclical. Every cycle we are somewhere new. Yet at the same time, we are back where we started. There might even be some radical changes. Some might think of these as the end of something, some might believe them the beginning of something.
Heshel in his work the Sabbath describes Jewish time as cyclical time. There are cycles of the year, and as Heschel spends much of the book describing, cycles of the week. The festivals are more marks in the cycles than anything else. Yet no mark is quite as significant to me as a beginning and an end as Simchat Torah, which not only ends Sukkot, but is the reading of both the end and then the beginning of Torah.
The tradition of dancing in circles with the Torah on Simchat Torah reminds me of those cycles. Yet in that tradition we also see one of the most radical changes. We move from the beginning of a scroll to the end. In congregations with multiple Torahs this can be seamless. One can read from one Torah from the end of Deuteronomy, and in another the beginning of Genesis. Yet, like one on my first congregations as an adult, the congregation had only one Torah, and that would require a radical change of rolling the whole Torah mid-service. One tradition I have seen as an alternative, especially in the liberal Jewish movements is the unrolling of the entire Torah in a circle held aloft by the careful hands of congregants, sometimes gloved sometimes not. Once unrolled it is rolled back up so that genesis is ready to read. To see and hold all of Torah around you is quite a powerful experience.
It has been my personal tradition not to hold the Torah scroll aloft, but to tell people what they are holding. I’m usually one of the few people in my congregation who can read and translate torah text cold. It was other reason I started taking Hebrew in the first place. Every year I can pick out a read more parts of Torah. And tell more about the story or Mitzvot they hold. It has been a joy to do so for many years now.
On the banks of the Zambezi, I will not be doing that. This year by the time Simchat Torah comes to this far side of the world, both in latitude and longitude, I will be arriving at my hotel for Johannesburg. This year is different, in that way. But it is different in many ways, the blessing of Sweetie in my life the greatest of them, who will be holding that Torah up for me this year. That blessing alone would make Victoria Falls a little stream in comparison.
There is always the continuity of the heart – literally. The sages pointed out that the last letter of the Torah and the first letter spell the word leiv, or heart. With our heart – both our emotions and our minds, we complete and begin a cycle anew, with new adventures.
Some want to talk of Jewish time like a spiral, both linear and cyclical. Yet that requires a longer length of time every cycle, but the holidays always appear at the same time. For me it is like this river I am leaving today, always moving forward over the falls, with rapids at places and still deep waters at others. IT can be rocky and small or deep and wide depending on the season. So too with our lives and with the holidays of the seasons, the lesson I think of Simhat Torah.
With the joint joy of Shabbat and the Cycling of the Torah, may you all have a wonderful holiday.