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Crowdsourcing the Bear
Eleven years ago, I began the biggest project of my writing career: The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom (click on this link for more info and a free sample chapter on leopards). Instead of working on the (projected) four volumes in order, I worked on which creature grabbed my interest at that time and sparked my creativity. For example, when I found a rarely-seen Mediterranean mole-rat, I started working on that entry; when I attended a halachic dissection of a stork, I worked on that entry. As a result, although I have written well over 100,000 words spanning many entries, no single volume is complete.
Eventually, I decided to focus on finishing the first volume, on chayos (wild animals), which is about 80% complete. Then I was distracted by the ban on my books and my academic career. I'm now trying to finish it off, but due to my doctoral dissertation and other projects, I can't give it my full attention. In addition, with each entry, there are sometimes a few sources that present difficulties.
And then I had the idea of crowdsourcing it. Here on this website I am blessed with an audience of over a thousand readers, many of whom are greatly learned. And so occasionally, I would like to present some sources and invite your input. Today's topic is bears, and following are two sources from Chazal that are giving me difficulties.
“...And two bears came out of the forest and tore up forty-two of the children” (Kings II 2:24, referring to the children that taunted Elisha). There was a dispute between Rav and Shmuel; one said that this was a miracle, and the other said that it was a miracle within a miracle. The one who said that it was a miracle is of the opinion that there was already a forest, but there were not any bears. The one who said that it was a miracle within a miracle is of the opinion that there was previously neither forest nor bears. But let there be bears without a forest? Because they would be afraid. (Talmud, Sotah 46b-47a)
Question #1: Why did Rav and Shmuel say that there was any miracle at all? Couldn't there just have been a forest and bears already there? Maharsha suggests that if so, the children would have been afraid to go there, and also that the deaths of the children would not have been attributable to Elisha's curse. Both those answers seem rather difficult.
Question #2: How would the rationalist Rishonim have understood this Gemara? Creation of bears and trees ex nihilo would surely be problematic for them.
Question #3: Kids can be cruel, but doesn't mass slaughter of them seem to be rather a disproportionate response?
Question #4: Is the Modern Hebrew expression "Lo dubim, lo ya'ar" based on a misunderstanding of the Gemara? (See, for example, here)
Next source: When Avraham attempted to prevent God from destroying Sodom, he argued that righteous people would also end up being killed if destruction was unleashed upon the city. The Midrash compares such unwanted results to a bear whose anger does not find a target:
“And Abraham drew near…” (Genesis 18:23) Rabbi Levi said: [It is comparable] to a bear that was raging against an animal, and could not find the animal to rage against, and raged against her children. (Midrash Bereishis Rabbah 49:8)
Bears are not known to ever do such a thing; their instinct to protect their young is incredibly strong. (I double-checked with the world's greatest expert on bear aggression.) I'm not averse to simply saying that it is zoologically inaccurate, but obviously it would be great to avoid having to do so - especially because this book is directed towards a broader audience than my other books. Matnos Kehunah says that the correct version is בבהמות not בבניה, which would certainly solve the problem, but is there any manuscript or other evidence for this?
Thank you in advance for your suggestions!