After teenage Pi Patel and his family get on a boat to move from India to America, something goes terribly wrong in the middle of the Pacific
Ocean and their boat goes down. Pi manages to get on a life raft and then spots Richard Parker drowning. He shouts to him, encourages him to
swim and throws him a life buoy. Finally, he manages to coax Parker close enough to climb on the raft with him, saving another life from the doomed ship. The only problem (and Pi, in his confusion, doesn’t clearly grasp this until after he saves him) is that Richard Parker is the name
of a ferocious full-size Royal Bengal tiger. And, floating in the Pacific, in the middle of nowhere, he will soon be getting hungry.
I will not spoil the entire vivid story of their fight for survival. Life of Pi is a beautiful and well-crafted story, with strong overtones of Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea. But it also reminds me of the story of our sidra this week, the story of Noach and the Mabbul, the Flood or Deluge.
For one, it is the watery destruction of Pi’s world that occasions the crisis and – in addition to his own survival – he welcomes the tiger (and a number of other animals, who are swiftly eaten) into his teiva (ark). For another, Pi’s faith in God is unshaken throughout and after his ordeal (much Like Noach).
But it is Pi’s relationship to the tiger that made me aware of another parallel to Noach that I had not paid much attention to before. At the beginning of their ordeal, Pi thinks of various ways that he can escape the tiger, outlast the tiger or manage to kill the tiger. He believes that his greatest threat is the tiger itself, which will surely eat him at the first opportunity. After some time, he comes to an amazing revelation: they are really allies. He realizes that he must tame the
tiger so that they can survive at sea together. It is not that they are friends or that they cuddle up together at night – Pi clearly understands that animals do not think or care like human beings and that he will never be ‘safe’ with Richard Parker — but he learns that they are partners, not enemies.
This made me wonder about Noach’s relationship to the animals, Surely, the reason for inviting them into the ark was because God commanded him to do so and in order that all the animal life on the planet would survive (see Gen 7:3, “to sustain progeny in the world”). But perhaps there was a lesson for Noach himself in being the care-taker of the animals, a lesson that had been forgotten since the days of Adam and Eve.
When Hashem commands Noach to take the animals into the ark: He says: “and from all living flesh, two of every kind shall you bring into the ark, to keep them alive with you; male and female shall they be.” (6:20) The additional phrase “with you” is striking. The animals are not only to be kept alive but to be kept alive with you.
Ramban (13th c. Spain) briefly comments on this verse: “‘to be kept alive with you’ – he commanded him to help them in entering the ark and to work as hard to make sure they survived as he would work to ensure his own survival.”
Clearly, Noach was intended to be a kind of zookeeper, a dedicated animal care-giver who had primary responsibility for the health and well-being of the animals in his care. It probably took up most of his time. I do not think that this is an unavoidable consequence of herding the animals into the boat so they could survive; more is going on here. God was interested – for Noach’s sake, not just the animals – that he be forced to care for these other creatures.
In the generations leading up to the deluge, Adam’s descendants became corrupt and evil in many ways. Above all, they were not good stewards of God’s world. They did not care for other human beings (theft, murder, sexual immorality) nor did they take care of the animal world or the environment (a possible interpretation of Gen. 6:12, see there).
They polluted and corrupted the entire earth. The gargantuan job of caring for all the animals on the teiva could be a message to Noach that it is not only his own morals that he need be concerned about, but about the welfare of the entire world. When God first put Adam into the garden, Adam was commanded to “serve it and protect it”, a moral charge to take care of the world He was given. In the wake of the expulsion from Eden and many years, his descendants were totally negligent in maintaining any awareness of this responsibility.
Caring for the animals is meant to re-enforce for Noach that it is not only humanity that was being saved, but the entire animal world as well. The humans and the animals are partners in the survival of the Flood and in starting the world over again. Humans are given the trait of dominance (‘the fear and terror of you shall be over all the animals of the planet”, Gen. 9:2), but each species plays their role. (There is a fascinating section in the beginning of Life of Pi where the narrator describes how important it is to animals to know who is in charge – who is the alpha male – and how nervous and insecure they are when they don’t know where they stand in the hierarchy. It is a kindness to animals to rule them as long as they are allowed to be animals and treated with benevolence. This is part of a defense of zoos, which is a topic for another time.)
Noach and his family care for and feed the animals, but when needed, the birds fly out to see if there is dry land. One imagines that the chickens laid eggs and the cows gave milk and each animal played its role in this mini-ecosystem. (Ramban discusses briefly whether or not predators got to eat meat while on the teiva, see his comments near the beginning of Noach.)
Interestingly, Adam and all his descendants were vegetarians. The Torah gives them explicit permission only to eat vegetation. But when Noach leaves the ark, he is given permission to eat meat for the first time.
The catch is that the meat must be eaten humanely. It cannot be taken from an animal while it is still alive and animals’ life-blood is forbidden, the reason why we salt kosher meat even today.
I think that even the ‘concession’ of allowing humans to eat meat is meant as a way of brining animals and humans closer together. Meat will become a staple of humanity’s diet, but it will come with its own rules about humane death and prohibitions against hurting animals. To truly be the care-take of the animal kingdom, must have both rights and responsibilities. There is no indication – that I can see, at any rate – that this covenant of animal care has lapsed in any way. It seems to me that the Torah still wants us to be as aware and concerned of animal life in this whole wide world as we would be if we were stuck together
in an ark.
It is not clear to me – and I include myself and my cohort of kosher consumers (with all our rules of shechita and kosher meat) in this concern – that we are adequately living up to this responsibility.