Saving the Teddy Bears

10.19.2015

To get the full impact of this sermon, you have to begin by singing out loud the following version of Rise and Shine, including all the choruses! You might want to invite some friends to join along with you.

Chorus:
Rise and shine and give God your glory, glory!
Rise and shine and give God your glory, glory!
Rise and shine and (clap once) give God your glory, glory!
Children of the Lord.

The Lord said to Noah, “There’s gonna be a floody, floody.”
Lord said to Noah, “There’s gonna be a floody, floody.”
“Get those children (clap once) out of the muddy, muddy!”
Children of the Lord.

Repeat chorus
So Noah, he built him, he built him an arky, arky.
Noah, he built him, he built him an arky, arky.
Made it out of (clap once) hickory barky, barky.
Children of the Lord.

Repeat chorus
The animals, they came on, they came on by twosies, twosies.
The animals, they came on, they came on by twosies, twosies.
Elephants and (clap once) kangaroosies, roosies.
Children of the Lord.

Repeat chorus

From the time that we are very young, we are drawn to animals. In psychology studies, children as young as six months try to get closer to actual dogs than they do to battery powered imitations. Sixty percent of the dreams of children ages three to five are about animals. And, the Noah story we read in today’s parasha is one of the most popular children’s stories of all times. We decorate our children’s cribs with Noah’s ark mobiles.

Why is this true? E.O. Wilson calls it biophilia. He believes human beings are inherently attuned to other life forms. Writer Jon Mooalem speculates that maybe kids are drawn to animals because they are so much like them. We are born naked, and we have to be housebroken and trained to sleep through the night without howling.

Whatever the reason, we yearn to be close to animals. And, in our desire to be with animals, we have a tendency to portray them as sweet and innocent – elephants and kangaroosie roosies whose greatest joy would be to cuddle up with us.

But, there is another side to this story. My cousin Alex Sytman told me that many years ago, there was a family of raccoons lodged in the Sytman attic. Alex called animal control, and they said eventually they will leave on their own. Well, eventually, they did. Alex was witness to the raccoon family making their way from the storage room through an open window – a momma, a poppa and three little baby raccoons.

But, as momma was leaving through the window, she dropped one of the babies. And, she couldn’t go back. So, Alex decided to try and rescue the baby raccoon and re-unite him with his family. But, when Alex got close to the little raccoon to pick him up, the raccoon bared his sharp teeth and hissed at him very aggressively and very menacingly. (imagine hissing baby raccoon here)

So, Alex realized it would be a mistake to try and pick this raccoon up. What did he do? He went and found himself a pair of very heavy work gloves. He covered himself with protective gear from head to toe. And he extended the tip of a ski to pick up the little raccoon and he put him outside the window.

There is a message in this story for not only how we treat animals, but how we treat people, too. And, that message is at the root of today’s parasha. In parashat Noah, we learn that God wanted to destroy the entire human race with a massive flood. What did the human beings do wrong?

We’re not sure. But, Aviva Zornberg speculates that the punishment fit the crime. Water erases boundaries. So, Zornberg speculates that the generation of Noah had no respect for the boundaries that give each person their own respect and integrity. They stole. They cheated. They tried to dominate each other. They had no respect for the boundaries of marriage.

And, so the antidote was for Noah to re-constitute the boundaries of a beautifully diverse world. How? Noah was given the task of feeding and taking care of all the different creatures on earth. To be effective, Noah had to get to know what each creature needed—not only what each animal ate, but what time of the day they were accustomed to eating.

And, in the process of caring for all these very unique creatures, Noah developed tremendous empathy. He developed the ability to listen deeply to the cries of each animal, and to figure out what made them happy and what made them sad.

We can just imagine how this experience would come in handy in dealing with human beings. If the new generation were sensitive to the unique needs of each person, and they were charged with satisfying them, kindness would be everywhere.

Of course, not everything was beautiful on the ark. The rabbis say that one time Noah got a little too close to the lion as he was feeding him, and the lion bit Noah. I’m guessing that Noah probably got himself a good pair of heavy working gloves after that.

Now, it’s interesting, the midrash doesn’t say that Noah stopped feeding the lion after he got bitten. So, part of what it means to truly love all of God’s creatures is to respect their wildness, to respect the fact that they are in fact different than us. And, if we truly love them, we will not try to make them like us as a pre-condition for our feeding them.

This is the central message of Jon Mooalem’s wonderful book Wild Ones. Mooalem says that in our desire to be kind to animals, we often describe them in ways that have nothing to do with the way they really are. He mentions a children’s book about a fox family sitting down to dinner. The author’s point is to teach kids that animals feed their families just like we do, and so we should be nice to them. Of course, the book doesn’t show the bloody rabbit that the fox family are about to eat, because that would upset children.

So, Mooalem raises the question: How can we be compassionate without being naïve? If we could figure that out, it would not only help us with animals, it would help us with people, too. Mooalem’s answer comes in the form of a rather amazing story.

Back in 1999, scientists got very concerned about the survival of whooping cranes. They could raise them in captivity, but they couldn’t teach them to migrate. They tried all kinds of tricks, but nothing worked. Finally, they heard about a man who got geese to follow his small plane. And, they started working together.

Here was the most interesting part for me. The scientists wanted to preserve the wildness of the cranes. They were afraid that if they got too close to them, the cranes would imprint on them, and they would lose their fear of humans. That would endanger them. But, it would also endanger us. A whooping crane that feels cornered in Luther Burbank Park could get very aggressive.

So, everyone who had any contact with the cranes from birth had to be covered in a costume from head to toe, with their faces not visible. And, the pilots of the planes that the cranes had to follow also wore these costumes. No human could ever have a face to face contact with any of these cranes. And, in this way, they were able to teach the cranes to migrate, without compromising their wildness.

We can imagine the temptation to collapse the boundary between human and crane. How tempting it must have been to be their friends, to be their family, to make them love us. And, what a tremendous act of love it was for the caretakers not to do that, because making the cranes human would not be good for them or for us.

Whether we are dealing with animals who are different from us or people who are different from us, we often make the same two classic mistakes. One mistake is to be so threatened by the Other, that we destroy them completely. Before the teddy bear was named after Teddy Roosevelt, bears were seen as very dangerous. And, our response was to drive them to the edge of extinction.

With the invention of the teddy bear, we began to see bears and cute and cuddly. And, that left us open to the other mistake. In our desire to be close to all of God’s creatures, we often portray the world as we wish it could be. We want everyone to be like us. So, we portray as benign that which is not benign.

If we look at the way terrorists were portrayed in the media this past week, it’s the same mistake. You could barely tell the difference between the terrorists and the victims. We have such a desire to overcome the gap between human beings, that we portray people who are dangerous as if they are not dangerous. In the name of compassion, we display a dangerous naivetee.

So, what do we do? To be a human being is to have an innate desire to reach out to all of God’s creatures. We have a natural desire to close the gap between us and animals, and even more so, between us and our fellow human beings. How do we show compassion without being naïve? How do we reach out without putting ourselves in danger?

We can learn a lot from Noah, from Alex Sytman, and from the scientists who are working to save the whooping crane. The answer is not to stop reaching out. We should reach out. But, before we do, we should make an investment in a good pair of heavy working gloves.