Discover more from Rationalist Judaism
Mighty Lambs and Evil Beasts
Yesterday, I delivered a lecture at a seminar organized in honor of the 20th anniversary of the new Jerusalem Biblical Zoo. The line-up of speakers was rather eclectic. A leading gynecologist spoke about his role in the successful artificial insemination of an elephant at the zoo; Mayor Nir Barkat spoke about tourism in Jerusalem; an ornithologist for the Nature Reserves Authority spoke about the rampant problem of raptors with tracking devices being captured in neighboring countries and suspected of being Mossad agents; MK Nachman Shai spoke about the Labor Party's plans for Jerusalem; the director of the Amsterdam Zoo spoke about the history of zoos; the Jerusalem Zoo's curator spoke about the fabulous aquarium that will be built there; and so on. I spoke about the identification and symbolism of various animals in the Bible, and afterwards I got into a fascinating discussion with the chief scientist of the Nature Reserves Authority about whether the yachmor of the Bible is the hartebeest, and whether it should be reintroduced to the wild.
One particularly interesting talk was given by Meir Shalev, a prominent Israeli author. He spoke about his childhood memories of the original Biblical Zoo, before it moved to its beautiful new premises. Shalev's family was friendly with the director of the zoo at the time, the late Professor Aharon Shulov (pictured at right with his wife and a friend). Shulov's zoo was a true Biblical Zoo, which exclusively housed animals from the Bible, unlike the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo of today.
Shalev related that Professor Shulov wanted the zoo to feature not only animals from the Bible, but also animal-related scenes from the Bible. In particular, he wanted to exhibit the wolf lying down with the lamb.
(It's funny that everyone thinks that the Bible talks about the lion lying down with the lamb. It doesn't. It speaks about the lion living with the cow. It's the wolf that is described as lying down with the lamb. Now is not the time to get into the medieval Maimonidean dispute about whether this is to be interpreted literally.)
Anyway, the problem with creating a wolf-lamb exhibit was that it would be prohibitively expensive, due to the need to replace the lamb on a regular basis! But Professor Shulov was determined to find a way around this problem, and he did.
One day, said Shalev, he came with his family to the zoo, and he saw a wolf lying spreadeagled on the ground, with a look of abject misery and exhaustion. "What happened?" he asked Professor Shulov. Shulov replied that it had just returned from the new wolf-lamb exhibit.
It turns out that Shulov had decided upon a rather novel solution to displaying a wolf with a lamb. The wolf was barely more than a cub, just eight months old. The lamb, on the other hand, was a strapping two-year-old, well on its way to becoming a ram. It had spent its time together with the wolf using its head and horns to butt it all around the cage!
But it was a different story that Shalev told that I found more interesting. He was describing how, as a child, he read Gerald Durrell's memoir My Family And Other Animals. This is the same book that I read as a child, about Durrell's experiences with wildlife in Corfu. At one point, said Shalev, Durrell describes how his mentor in biology brought him some specimens of anopheles mosquitoes to study. Shalev said that at the time, he was horrified. He simply couldn't understand how Durrell could describe the anopheles mosquito with wonder and interest. The anopheles mosquito was no mere insect. It was the Evil Enemy of Zionism!
In the early days of the State of Israel, children were taught how to identify the anopheles mosquito, evil enemy of Zionism. This was not really an exaggeration. The formation of the State of Israel was not only threatened by political and military forces; it was also threatened by malaria. Malaria, transmitted by the anopheles mosquito, is a terrible disease with no cure. It was rampant in Palestine, and it led to some early settlements being completely abandoned. Entry permits to Palestine warned that "the mosquito is your enemy!" Thanks to intensive efforts to combat it, it went into decline, and was finally eradicated from Israel in 1967. Had this battle not been fought, the State of Israel would probably not have been able to come into existence and survive.
This story helped me to understand something in Scripture. Dangerous animals are often described in Scripture with the term chayah ra'ah, "evil beasts." Yet these animals are certainly not consciously engaging in acts of wickedness. In Jewish thought as well as contemporary zoology, animals do not possess free will such as to make moral choices. I had previously understood the Scriptural description to mean that these animals are evil in the sense of being vicious. But perhaps it's that they are evil in terms of their effects on people. From a contemporary cushy Western perspective, we don't seriously fear the effects of dangerous animals on our lives. But in harsher times and places, lions and leopards and even mosquitoes really were The Evil Enemy.
I even know of one poor wolf who viewed a certain sheep that way.
(I'll be starting my anti-malaria medication soon, as I head out to my safari in Africa. Readers in Johannesburg are invited to attend my lectures on Shabbat July 20th at Beit Yisrael Waverley. If anyone has availability to drive me around on July 18th-19th, please be in touch.)