“Jews and Giraffes” – Shabbat Shemini, Friday April 21, 2017

We generally reserve the Hebrew phrase “Nes Gadol Haya Sham” – a great miracle happened there – for Chanukah and the story of the miracle of the oil lamp. But this year, we found ourselves using the phrase in the middle of Passover. Nes Gadol Haya Sham. On Shabbat Pesach, a great miracle happened . . . at Animal Adventure Park near Binghamton, New York. April the Giraffe finally gave birth to a beautiful, healthy baby boy.

The birth had been anticipated for months. The Park set up a giraffe –cam (aptly sponsored by Toys R Us), so that we could sit and watch for hours at a time, for weeks and months on end, as April got bigger, started pacing, set up her birthing area, and finally gave birth standing up, to a big strapping boy who was soon on his feet and nursing. Daddy Oliver, in the next room over, seemed to lord over the whole scene with pride.

So what’s this all about? Why all the fuss about a baby giraffe? Well, for one thing, it was clearly the power of social networking and the bright idea of the crew at Animal Adventure Park to let everyone watch, for weeks on end, 24-7. That could have backfired on them if something had gone wrong. They were lucky, but also pretty courageous. If you thought people were not excited about baby animals, they are now. And not just giraffes. Fiona, the baby hippo born prematurely at the Cincinnati Zoo, has been getting an awful lot of on-line love, too, with the team’s daily updates and video feeds. I’m pleased to tell you that she’s now enjoying the indoor pool, consuming 360 ounces of formula a day, along with some hay, and as of Tuesday was up to 166 pounds. And you can find all that information on Fiona’s own blog.

So yes, some of it was the confluence of social media and baby-animal adorableness. But I’d like to think there was another factor at play: parents teaching their children the art of patience.

The day the April’s baby was born was also the first day of children’s fishing season at Reservoir Park, across the street from our house. As hundreds of kids and their parents and grandparents kept one eye on their lines, they kept the other on the facebook feeds on their phones. The volunteers were watching, too, and made sure they announced to the crowd when the giraffe was finally born.

And on the live feed, people from all over the world added comments about how their children – aged 3, or 5 or 9 – had been watching with them all this time and broke out into shouts and whoops when they saw the baby giraffe’s spindly legs emerge. Giraffe-watching had become a family pastime. One that, like fishing at the reservoir, requires a degree of patience that we presume kids today simply don’t have. And that, too, may be a great miracle.

Kids are bombarded with so much that comes at them so quickly. It’s the nature of social media, but also the nature of the rest of their lives. They are shuttled between schools and endless activities. Weekends are highly structured. Full participation in everything is required. And they are terrified to miss even a day of school, for fear they’ll be too far behind even the next day. It’s not the kids’ fault. Their parents have an ever growing number of responsibilities, and their teachers are inundated with bureaucratic demands. The intense pressure on adults inevitably filters down to the children. Everybody is stressed. Everybody is moving a mile a minute.

The latest unfortunate trend in urban life is pedestrians being hit by cars – because so many people are crossing the street with their headphones on and their eyes on their phone screens.

In an article in Atlantic Magazine, Jessica Lahey lamented what she called “childish impatience” – which she also applied to adults. She looked for guidance to Harvard humanities professor Jennifer L. Roberts, who not only writes about the power of patience but also tries to teach it in her classroom. While students are being pushed toward “immediacy, rapidity, and spontaneity,” she wrote, “I want to give them the permission and the structures to slow down.”

For one assignment, Professor Roberts had her students write a research paper that required an immersive assignment. They were to write on one work of art, and they had to spend three hours studying it. Three hours! No distractions, no texting, no chatting, just three hours examining a painting for its nuances and its underlying beauties.

Can you imagine the kids you know doing that? I have a better question for you. Can you imagine yourself doing that. Taking the time to immerse yourself fully, for hours on end, in one experience that leads you to a deeper understanding of something special and beautiful? Can you?

Well, that’s exactly the gift that the giraffe cam gave us. But as Jessica Lahey wrote, “access is not synonymous with learning.” It took more than just an occasional peek in, to see what was really going on. It took patience to sit there for long stretches of time to pick up on April’s physical signals that maybe she was getting ready for birth. Was her movement changing? Was she nesting? Was she pacing? Did her body look different? What about changes in her eating habits?

You had to sit and watch to figure it out for yourself, just as you’d have to study a painting for hours to fully understand the intentional uses of texture and color, light and shadow, the mottled features of an aging face, or the grace of an outstretched hand.

To know the story – and not just a few facts – takes patience that we sometimes forget we have.

And that’s why the giraffe baby’s birth was glorious – not just because it happened, which is a miracle in itself, but that it happened on Passover, when we Jews are asked to be at our most patient. When, the hagaddah tells us, we must deal with questions from children who are smart or smart-aleck, eager or bored, sweet or grouchy. When we re-enact our history with such detail that, if we forget to emphasize the pesach, the matzah and the maror, the rabbis tell us we have not fulfilled our responsibility to pass the tale down from generation to generation.

Or take this week’s Torah portion, parashat Shemini, which begins with the ninth chapter of Leviticus. The sanctification of the high priests in the tabernacle already has been going on for eight days. Eight days of offerings and incense, of precision in all the rituals and recitations. Aaron did his job – but his sons, Nadav and Avihu, apparently got impatient. After watching what their father did at God’s command, they decided to freelance, to create their own fire offerings – not ordained by God – with the tragic result that they themselves were consumed by the flames.

And after all that was over, when everyone was stunned into silence by the boy’s deaths, God laid out for the people – in excruciating detail – the laws of kashrut. What could be eaten and what was forbidden.

That cows are okay but camels are not. That fish have to have fins and scales. That birds in general are okay – but not a vulture and especially not a black vulture. Oh, and no eating mice. As if.

We don’t follow exactly these rules anymore. But really studying this whole chapter of 47 long verses, about yes to this animal and no to that one, teaches us the underlying concept that we ought to pay attention to what we eat. That there is a sanctity in preparing food for our families, as much as there was in preparing offerings to God.

The point is that everything that God teaches us requires patience. If the people thought the Ten Commandments were the be-all and end-all, they were mistaken. They were just the general categories. The mitzvot that follow, about everything from the food we eat to the way we treat our neighbors, to marriage and family law – that stuff matters. The details matter.

The rabbis count up 613 commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai. It took patience for the Israelites to learn how to integrate them into their daily lives – which may be one reason they needed those 40 years in the wilderness. It takes the patience of a lifetime for us, too, not just to fly through the words of Torah, as they’re chanted in Hebrew from an old scroll every Shabbat, but to sit with them and wrestle with them and question them and find the underlying meaning in them. What takes Torah from a dusty old history book to God’s moral compass? We do.

It takes a lot of patience to be a Jew, just as it does to be a parent, or a child, or a teacher, or a student, or a zookeeper watching for those tell-tale changes that a baby giraffe or a baby hippo is about to be born.

To use Jessica Lahey’s example of teaching a novel like Great Expectations, “we can ease our students back into the skill of patience by asking them to stick with stories that don’t answer all their questions on page one.”

What’s true of literature is true of life. And what’s true for students is true for us all. Access may be quick and easy, but learning is a journey. We Jews ought to know that by now. But the miracle of April and Oliver’s baby giraffe is a beautiful reminder. The miracle was not just the moment of birth: It was the millions of people of all ages, all around the world, patiently sharing the journey together in preparation for that moment.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.


©2017 Audrey R. Korotkin


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