There are zoos, and there are animal parks. Zoos are built in large metropolitan areas, animal parks rise up in the deep country. Zoos have concrete pathways, food courts, and train rides, animal parks have dirt paths, food trucks, and repainted school buses. Zoos have rules and regulations, animal parks have… er, animals.

I had the occasion to visit an animal park in Arizona a few years ago, while on a trip with a wonderful group of young Jewish professionals exploring their heritage in a new environment. Calling it a zoo would be like calling a cat a tiger, they come from the same family, but they are very different beasts. It’s not that the animal park didn’t have a lot of animals, it had an enormous diversity of animals, the difference is in the way the animals live and are displayed. 

While zoos keep the animals in smaller habitats with many barriers between humans and animals, the animal park keeps them in large habitats, often with nothing but a chain link fence between the animals of prey and the humans who are prey. You get around either by tram or by walking the muddy pathways, sidewalks don’t exist. For an extra $20, you can zip-line right over all the animal habitats. I didn’t do it not because I’m afraid of falling, but because I’m afraid of landing in a lion’s den. 

It’s like a zoo gone heimish.

A friend of mine was allowed to feed a tiger, by holding a piece of meet through the fence at the end of a three-foot pole. At one point, I found myself not more than two feet from a tiger, trying to take a picture with my phone, when the tiger felt I was a bit too close. It let out a massive roar and swung its head toward me, teeth bared, and I flew backward in fear! The animals often walk along with you; you might have a lioness, panther, or cougar just pacing you as you walk past their habitats, an eight-foot chain link fence the only thing separating the two of you as you stroll together. The hyenas love to lope alongside the people as well, their loopy gait making them look far less menacing than hyenas truly are. For more about that, please see the Lion King. 

In the snake habitat, which is just a covered hallway leading past a line of large glass-faced snake cages, the staff hauled out a fourteen-foot python and calmly gave it to the attendees to hold. Once a day, the animal park has a show called Tiger Splash, where staff members run around with a pair of full size tigers, jumping in and out of a pool with them, wrestling with them (guess who wins every time), and holding balloons way above their heads so that the tigers can leap into the air to pop the balloons. I assume the staff never read the biographies of Siegfried and Roy.

Three days a week, you can watch them feed the animals. The animals of prey are fed horse meat. In Arizona, horse meat usually walks in on its own four feet, as ranchers drop off old and dying horses almost daily. The staff casually toss five to twenty pound slabs of meat into the cages and the animals attack the food loudly. Lions roaring, hyenas laughing, tigers snarling, bears growling; it’s a cacophonous hour at the animal park!

One of the highlights of the animal park is their safari. Visitors pile into an old school bus whose windows have been cut out making it into a long open-air Jeep. Once you enter the Safari area, there are no more cages, the animals all roam free. The staff gives you kidney shaped animal biscuits, which you can feed to the giraffes who stick their huge heads into the bus, and lick the biscuits out of your hand. A few intrepid souls were shown how to hold the biscuits in between their lips, and the giraffe licked the biscuits right off their face! 

As we drove around, the driver who was both very funny and very knowledgeable talked non-stop about all the species we passed, and threw them food to make sure they came close to the bus. A pride of zebras followed us for a while, then gave up when the treats were no longer being flung their way. Our guide fed the female ostrich, which dipped its head and snatched biscuits out of her hand with such speed that if you blinked you’d miss it, but the male ostriches were behind a small fence; they are violent, aggressive, and untamable. 

We passed by many kosher animals in the bovidae family; gemsbock, oryx, water buffalo, antelope, gazelle, and the sable antelope. The sable antelope is an extremely aggressive animal; the bulls can grow to 600 pounds, and their four-foot-long curved horns are razor sharp. They are the only members of the deer/antelope family that will charge directly at an adult male lion, often winning the battle! 

Overall, we had a great time at the animal park; it felt far more authentic than the typical zoo. Standing twelve feet away from a male lion with nothing between you and it but twelve feet of air is a powerful and exhilarating experience. The animals in the animal park are far more lively, feeling freer than animals living in the small habitats in the zoo, and being challenged to leap into the air to grab their slabs of meat with a roar. In a world where so much has been sterilized and distilled, it is very refreshing to see that there still exist places that are closer to the Wild Wild West than to the antiseptic cities of the future. I hope animal parks like these continue to exist; unlike zoos, they get no government funding, they don’t charge a lot for admission, and they are mostly sustained by the passion and love of animals of their owners and staff. 

When I was there, I learned two important lessons, and I’d love to share them with you. The first was from the giraffes. The animal park had two male giraffes and no females (females cost about four times the price of a male). But the two males had to be kept in two different parts of the animal park, never sharing a habitat for even one evening. This is because when they were together they would often battle each other with such ferocity, that there was concern that one of them would kill the other. What were they battling over? A non-existent female. They each wanted a mate, and even though there was no female in the animal park, they still fought each other for dominance over the idea of something that did not exist. 

We humans hear about this and think to ourselves, “What foolish animals, killing each other over something that does not exist!” But we do the same thing ourselves all the time. In the business arena, people often compete ferociously with some other person in the community, resorting to underhanded tactics to win business or smear their competitors. But the truth is that they are fighting over a fantasy bucket of cash. They think there is this money out there, and one of them will get it, and whoever fights harder will get the bucket. Our faith tells us that this is a fantasy. There is no bucket of cash to be fought over. Each of us will get from Ha-shem what we are supposed to get, and no one in the world can touch it. Not our competitor in the community, not the cheap products coming in from China, not online sales, and not the IRS. 

The Talmud tells us (Yoma, 38B), “No person can touch that which was predestined for his friend by even a hairsbreath!” All the competition that humans feel with other people in the same field is a fantasy. We see it so clearly with the two male giraffes competing over a non-existent female, it’s necessary for us to see it in regards to our own lives as well. 

The second thing I found fascinating during my trip to the animal park was the python skin. I was one of the fifteen people holding up that fourteen-foot python. I could feel its ribs sliding through my hand, and being that it has over 400 sets of ribs, there was plenty of ribs to go around! It was surprisingly warm (pythons can raise their internal temperatures by vibrating their muscles!), and even more surprisingly, the skin was very soft! I’ve held snakes before and their skin is usually a tougher and scalier, but this python’s skin, a beautiful pattern of mustard yellow shapes on an off-white background, was incredibly soft and smooth. I asked one of the staff about it, and he explained that we were lucky to have come that day, because just that morning Melanie had shed her previous skin, and we were touching skin that was only a day old! 

Snake skins are not like human skin, they get harder rapidly as they are exposed to the outside air, while human skin doesn’t. But snake skins are like human’s emotional skin. The more we are exposed to something the harder our “emotional skin” to that thing is, and the less it affects us. This has a good side and a bad side. On the good side, if we decide to do something good, if we decide to take a step forward in our Judaism, often the people around us will mock us. Why they do that is a complex conversation, not in our scope today, but it certainly happens. At first, while our skin is still soft, it can really hurt us, but it is good for us to know that if we stick to our guns, and don’t let their words affect us, we will soon develop a tougher skin, and it simply won’t bother us anymore. We know that what we are doing is right, and we have to just let other people’s criticism or passive aggressive remarks slide off us like off the month-old scaly skin of a Burmese Python.

The challenge is that when we are exposed to someone else’s pain, it may affect us at first, but as we become used to that reality, our skin starts to harden, and we start to lose sensitivity to their pain. This is not a good thing, but how do we combat it, it’s human nature that we get desensitized to things? The answer is that we need to shed that hardened skin, and bring on a new softer skin. We do that by spending more time talking to the person and learning a new element of their story that we didn’t know before. This rehumanizes their pain in our eyes, and peels back the hardening of our skin. Alternatively, we can try to talk out (even to ourselves) what they must be going through right now. Yes, they lost their parent a month ago, but the last time we thought of them was by the shiva, now they are all alone with their pain without comforting friends around them. How must it feel now? Trying to see a new element of their feelings can also resensitize us to their pain, and stir up the feelings of compassion that we had for them previously.

G-d put so many amazing creatures into this world, and each one of them is here to teach us some lesson. Visiting a zoo or an animal park, is like opening a character development book, with so many lessons on display for us, and all in a magnificent and wild way. Long live the animal park, and long live our ability to learn from everything it holds!

Parsha Dvar Torah

In this weeks Parsha, we begin reading about the Ten Plagues. To some, the ten plagues seem like what we would call today “excessive force!” Why couldn’t G-d just use a couple of them, not harden Pharaoh’s heart, and Pharaoh would’ve for sure caved in and let the Jews go. Theoretically, G-d could’ve even just gone in right away with the “nuclear option,” the Death of the Firstborn, and probably could’ve ended the Jewish slavery with just one plague! What was so many plagues supposed to achieve?

Let’s look at an answer given by Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky (1911-2000, Belarus – Israel), the Chassidic master of the Slonim dynasty, in his magnum opus, the Nesivos Shalom. 

During the Passover seder, when we recount the Ten Plagues, we say the following teaching, “Rabbi Yehuda used to give them signs, דצ”ח אד”ש באח”ב.” The letters that Rabbi Yehuda groups together are the initials of the Ten plagues and together they form the mnemonic seen above. What exactly is Rabbi Yehuda trying to teach us with this statement? Is he simply teaching us that we can form mnemonics by taking the first letter of a bunch of words and putting them together?

What Rabbi Yehuda is really trying to do is to point out that there were actually three different categories of plagues, each with a different role to play in bringing to fruition the overall goal of the plagues. Before we can see what each grouping added, we need to look at what the stated goal of the plagues is. When Moshe came to Pharaoh the first time and told him that the G-d of the Hebrews said that he should let the Jewish people go, Pharaoh responded by saying “I don’t know who this G-d is!” G-d’s response was the ten plagues, whose stated goal was “with this you will know that I am G-d!” (Exodus 7:17). 

Each set of plagues in Rabbi Yehuda’s mnemonic showed G-d’s mastery in a different area. The first set showed His mastery over all things beneath the surface of the earth. The blood in the rivers, the frogs coming out of the rivers, and the earth turning into teeming lice, were all clear supernatural phenomena showing G-d’s mastery over things beneath the earth. 

The plagues indicated in the second mnemonic set showed G-d’s mastery over everything on the surface of earth. Wild animals roaming the streets, pestilence killing off all of the Egyptian’s domestic animals, and boils appearing on all the Egyptian’s skin, are all things that took place on the surface, showing G-d’s mastery over all things terrestrial. The plagues indicated in the last mnemonic set showed G-d’s mastery over all things in the heavens above. Hailstones made of fire and ice, locust blowing in from the heavens, absolute darkness, and G-d Himself snuffing out the life of every firstborn in Egypt in one microsecond, are clear indications that the heavens above are also under the absolute control of G-d.

The idea of the different sets of plagues demonstrating G-d’s control over different parts of nature is underscored clearly in the text. Each time a new set of plagues is about to begin, G-d reiterates to Moshe that this is being done so that everyone should know that the G-d of the Hebrews is the G-d who controls everything (Exodus 7:17 before the plague of blood, 8:18 before the plague of wild animals, and 9:14 before the plague of hail). Besides the three major categories; beneath the surface, on the surface, and the heavens, each plague showed mastery over a different sub category as well. Rivers, amphibians, insects, wild animals, astronomy, climate, and human health all proved to be putty in the hands of the Master Shaper. 

These lesson were extremely important in the overall scheme of the Exodus, because at that time almost everyone in the world was a polytheist, believing in a panoply of gods that each controlled his or her little fiefdom, and the idea of a single G-d controlling all the forces and energies was extremely foreign. The Exodus is the one time in history where G-d demonstrated His absolute control over all of nature. These lessons were even more important for the Jews who had been living amongst and were influenced by the Egyptians, as it was for the Egyptians themselves. It is for this reason that we reference the Exodus from Egypt so many times in our prayers and blessings. It was an event that created the bedrock of our monotheist beliefs.

A one-dimensional “nuclear option” like the Death of the Firstborn might have been enough to convince Pharaoh to let the Jews free, but it would not accomplish the goals of the three-dimensional Ten Plagues which revealed the true essence of G-d to the world. That lesson still reverberates throughout the world, not only in the Jewish community, but in the majority of the civilized world that still beliefs in One Omnipotent G-d.

One plague could have been enough to get the Jews out of Egypt, but the Ten Plagues were able to get Egypt out of the Jews!

Parsha Summary

The Parsha starts with G-d reassuring Moshe that he has a special covenant with the Jewish people and that He will take them out of Egypt with great wonders and bring them to the land He promised their forefathers. Moshe conveys this message to the Jewish people, but they don’t believe him, due to their hard work, and distress.

Then the Torah gives a quick recap of the lineage of the first three tribes leading up to Moshe and Aaron, just to give us a proper perspective on who the Moshe and Aaron we will be talking about for the next few parshiot are. At the end of that we find Moshe demurring for the last time, this time based on his speech impediments, after which G-d tells him that Aaron will be his interpreter. 

Moshe and Aaron come before Pharaoh and show him a miracle in which Aaron casts his staff to the floor, and it turns into a snake. Pharaoh starts laughing and calls in his wife, then his children, then the school children, and they all do the same with their staffs. However, when Aaron picks up his snake it returns to its staff form and then proceeds to swallow all the other staffs without changing size. After that, Moshe warns Pharaoh of the first of the Ten Plagues – blood.

After Pharaoh doesn’t heed the warning, Aaron raises his staff and hits the Nile which turns to blood. For the next week, the Egyptians could only find blood no matter where they looked, even in wells, reservoirs, and houses. The only way they could drink water was by buying it from a Jew. (No kids outside selling lemonade for 5 cents a cup, more like kids selling water for $10 a cup and having a line of customers!) Pharaoh called his magicians who could also produce blood. This hardened his heart, and he did not let the Jews go.

Then Moshe warned Pharaoh of the frogs and, sure enough, soon the entire Egrypt was covered in frogs. The frogs even went into burning ovens and the people’s stomachs. Pharaoh’s magicians could also produce frogs, but they couldn’t get rid of them, so Pharaoh tells Moshe he will let the people go if the frogs go as well. Moshe davens, the frogs all die, but Pharaoh doesn’t keep his part of the deal. 

Next G-d tells Aaron to hit the ground with his staff, and the entire earth of Egypt turns into a teeming mass of lice. This the magicians cannot reproduce, as they have no control over anything smaller than a grain of barley, and they are forced to admit that it is the finger of G-d. But Pharaoh was of the hardened heart type, and he did not let the Jews go. 

G-d tells Moshe to warn Pharaoh about the next plague, assorted wild animals, and when Pharaoh doesn’t change his mind, they descend on Egypt and wreak havoc. Pharaoh cries uncle and offers to let the Jews go but, once again, as soon as the plague is over he changes his mind. This pattern continues through the end of the Parsha, as the fifth plague, pestilence, the sixth plague, boils, and the seventh plague, hail, unfold. After watching the miraculous hail, which was a combination of fire and ice, Pharaoh admits that he and his people have been wrong and that G-d was right. But after the hail stops, guess what happens? You got it, he changes his mind and goes back to the old “I will not let them go” line. That’s all Folks!

Quote of the Week:  When in doubt, decide in favor of what is correct. ~ Karl Kraus

Random Fact of the Week: All the insects on earth weigh three times as much as all other animals combined.

Funny Line of the Week: Why don’t they just make mouse-flavored cat food?

Have a Dandy Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

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