Then the Bear Said…

Usain Bolt set a new Olympic record in London for the hundred-meter race. Though true, it wouldn’t be particularly helpful if he advised aspiring athletes, “It’s easy; just move your legs faster.”

Similarly, while true, it isn’t helpful to remind ourselves that success comes to those who do what they must rather than what they feel like. We know that. We need to know how to overcome our feelings.

Fortunately God provides us with regular reminders from those sentient creatures with whom we share the planet—animals.

We encounter two talking animals in the Torah.  The common English translations evoke Mother Goose rather than God’s intentions, so I am going to stick with the Hebrew. The nachash spoke to Eve:

…Did God really say that you should not eat from any of the trees in the garden? (Genesis 3:1)

The aton spoke to Bilaam:

…What have I done to you that you struck me these three times?

(Numbers 22:28)

My family was boating off an island in British Columbia when we sighted a black bear scavenging for shellfish.

Hardly daring to breathe, we coasted closer and cut the engine.  Drifting silently, we gazed in wonderment at this grand creature.

Imagine if the bear, just then, had raised his enormous head, opened his mouth, and clearly spoken, “Move along, please. Let a bear enjoy his breakfast in peace.”

Would we have said, “Oh sorry, we’ll leave now”?  Of course not.  I might have called out, “Who was that?”  My son might have responded, “We must be on Candid Camera.”  One thing is certain; none of us would have calmly engaged the bear in banter.

Yet Eve responded to the nachash by explaining that he was wrong. Bilaam also responded to the aton’s plaintive question. Neither of them expressed the slightest surprise at being addressed by an animal.

We ordinary humans do not possess the spiritual sensitivity of Eve or Bilaam.  Yet on some level, animals still do communicate with us.

I’m not referring to the more obvious examples of the cat owner recognizing her pet’s dinner demand or the dog summonsing his owner for a walk.  No, ancient Jewish wisdom tells us that each animal highlights one central lesson for our benefit.

The undemanding loyalty of dogs calls us to be better friends.

The cat’s obsession with cleanliness speaks to us of the importance of sanitation and hygiene.

The ant and the beaver present an argument against procrastination. These animals silently urge us to improve.

But there is also negative communication from the animal kingdom.  At one time or another most of us have heard the seductive enticement, “C’mon, you’re really one of us.  There’s no reason not to do what you feel like doing.”

The voice of the nachash tempts us with the idea that infidelity is genetic as surely as it tempted Eve to disobey God.  It is that same voice echoing out of the pages of Genesis that assures us that we have no moral choice; everything is predetermined by our biological origins and urges.

Ultimately, animals remind us every day that we are different and special.  We’re touched by the finger of God.  We’re holy and thus capable of controlling our behavior, rather than merely following our instincts.

The space constraints of these weekly Thought Tools don’t allow me to delve into the meaning of the Hebrew animal names above, though the analysis would be worthwhile. I am thrilled, though, to present Buried Treasure: Secrets for Living from the Lord’s Language with its detailed and entertaining examination of 29 Hebrew words. Through the medium of Hebrew God reveals practical guidelines to enhance our family and community lives, our faith and fortunes. This 2nd edition of one of our most popular resources has an entirely new chapter and other extra features. It is written for those with no Hebrew knowledge and for those who are fluent. As an added bonus, you can acquire one of our Library Packs (including Buried Treasure) at the current price. Those prices will go up slightly in 48 hours reflecting the cost of the new book. Alone or as part of a larger pack, this is one book you really want to own.

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Read the most recent Ask the Rabbi question and answer here.

I have been reading your book “Buried Treasure” and was sharing portions of the chapter on laughter with a son-in-law who studied Hebrew in seminary. He said one of his professors suggested that Isaac was a Downs Syndrome child. That made no sense to me that the child of promise would not be “perfect”. Do you have an answer for this?

Read Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin’s Answer

This week’s Susan’s Musings: Sitting Shiva:

Barely a week goes by without my being consciously grateful for the preciousness of the Almighty’s gift of a weekly oasis, Shabbat. Last week I had the opportunity to be thankful for another of His gifts, one that is also related to seven days.

My sister, Ellen, passed away on Sunday morning a week ago. From the moment…READ MORE

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