Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Deadly Beauty

Over the last few years, I have been leading safaris for Torah In Motion. Each year brings something different, and the last two game drives were truly unique. Following are some photos, notes, and theological reflections from the last 24 hours. (If you are reading this in a browser, you can click on the pictures to enlarge them and see the detail.)

Before even getting into the Land Rover yesterday afternoon, we saw a boomslang snake in a tree next to the car. Boomslangs are one of the most venomous snakes in Africa. Their bite is more deadly than that of a cobra or black mamba. It causes massive internal hemorrhaging, leaving the victim bleeding from his/her orifices and turning blue from internal bleeding. However, boomslangs are extremely timid snakes and almost never bite people, which is why I was comfortable approaching it to take this picture. 

It must be said that the boomslang is astonishingly beautiful. With its very large eyes and bright green color, it is truly striking, one of the most beautiful snakes that I have ever seen. And its agility, as it flowed through the branches of the tree, was a sight to behold. I was reminded of the Midrash which states that even God's curse contains a blessing; the snake might have lost its legs, but it now has the advantage of remarkably agility.

We drove out into the African bush, and after a while, we stopped to admire one of the largest spider webs I have ever seen. It was nearly two meters (six feet) across! In the center was a spider the size of my palm. It was a spider that I had been searching for ever since I saw one many years ago in Kenya: a golden orb spider.

Golden orb spiders are venomous, but their venom is mild, probably no worse than a bee sting. Like boomslangs, they too are spectacularly beautiful. They have bright yellow bands on their legs and a domino-pattern on their abdomen. This one was a female; males are much smaller.

The Midrash describes how King David asked God about the necessity of such creatures as spiders; he was answered when a spider helped him escape from his pursuers, by spinning a web across the mouth of the cave in which he had just hidden, thereby convincing his pursuers that the cave must be empty. This is not necessarily to say that the entire species was created just for the acts of these individuals. Rather, these should be seen as examples of how even apparently useless and unpleasant things are beneficial. Spider silk is of great interest to scientists, due to its tremendous strength. The silk of golden orb spiders is the most astonishing substance; I was able to pluck the strands of the web, almost like a guitar. It is so strong that if it was twisted together to form a string the thickness of a pencil, it would be able to restrain a Boeing 747 at full throttle!

I carefully captured the spider in my bag for, er, further observation. Later, when I returned to my cabin, I transferred it to a plastic box where it seemed quite happy. Then I did something really foolish. Before heading out to dinner, I liberally sprayed myself with insect repellent. When I returned from dinner, I went to inspect the spider, and much to my horror, I found it on its back, with its legs drawn in, in the death pose! But one of its legs was twitching slightly, so I hoped that there was still a chance. I took it outside the cabin, removed the lid, and carefully blew fresh air over its body. Within an hour it was fully back to normal, thank God. I wonder if I am the first person to ever perform CPR on a spider!

This morning's game drive led us to some other, larger, predators. First was a hyena, standing guard at the entrance to its den. Then we came across a lion that we had seen on the previous day. This was a very old male, about twelve years old, and blind in one eye, as you can see in the picture (click on it for a closer look).

This old lion was not alone. With him was another male, some lionesses, and at least eight cubs. It was a fabulous display of the power of lion - as per the explanation given on the movie at The Biblical Museum of Natural History. The Mishnah says, "Who is powerful? One that controls his inclination." No other cat would be able to control its aggression and live together with so many of its own kind. Of all the big cats, only the lion is able to live in large family groups, in which they band together to hunt their prey; as the saying goes, the family that preys together, stays together.

This large pride of lions was not in this spot by chance. Driving a few meters further on, we saw a cub lying picturesquely on top of a large boulder. Except that, as we looked closer, we saw that it wasn't a boulder. It was a dead rhinoceros.

The park rangers had removed its horn, so that poachers would not get it, but they left the body there. A lioness had stuck her head into the rhino's head, and we heard slobbering noises as she pulled her blood-stained face out to look at us. Driving around the carcass, we came to the front of the rhino. It looked like a dinosaur, lying out there.

The circle of life and death in the animal kingdom poses certain theological questions. The question of why bad things happen to good people is, in certain ways, not as difficult to answer as the question of why bad things happen to good animals. In my book Man & Beast (sadly out of print for many years), I explored some approaches to this question. There is one striking quote from the Chazon Ish about predatory animals: "We feel that without them the world would be lacking, and the world is not beautiful and perfect except when there are predatory animals in it."

Whether it is spiders catching flies in their webs, or lions hunting rhinos, the world is is certainly beautiful, even if it is savage in its beauty!

I would like to conclude with some exciting news: Starting on the Sunday after next, there will be a series of weekly lectures at The Biblical Museum of Natural History, which will also be live-streamed for anyone in the world to join! For more details and registration, see The series will contain in-depth discussions about Biblical zoology, with the assistance of museum exhibits. It's the next best thing to joining a Torah-In-Motion African Adventure!


  1. Lovely pictures. I'm sure you are aware that boomslang snake is a tautology. It means tree-snake.

    1. John, thanks for the insight into the snake's name. I hadn't thought of reading it as an 'old-German', i.e., Dutch (Boer)name akin to Yiddish. In the latter, 'boomslang' becomes 'boim shlang', i.e., tree snake - as you pointed out.

      Y. Aharon

  2. "The silk of golden orb spiders is the most astonishing substance; I was able to pluck the strands of the web, almost like a guitar. It is so strong that if it was twisted together to form a string the thickness of a pencil, it would be able to restrain a Boeing 747 at full throttle!"
    Note also how the yellow bands on the legs of the boomslang spider are so precisely spaced.

    This is why I could never accept natural selection as the mechanism for evolution (in addition to the massively incomplete fossil record). When confronted with these amazing phenomena, it just seems ridiculous!

    "We feel that without them the world would be lacking, and the world is not beautiful and perfect except when there are predatory animals in it."
    I never understood this quote. The cruelty of having animals rip each other to shreds would seem to outweigh "need" for the beauty of the chase.

  3. Why don't you have sleepovers with the animals like the AMNH in New York does?

  4. Boomslang doesn't look that timid....

  5. when i was 10 years old i lived in zambia riding my bike through a path in a field, and lo and behold this long green snake was crossing the path a few feet ahead of me. i stopped just a feet or so before i hit him... i never took that path again.


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