‘The way elephants help each other inspires me and I’ve learnt so much from them over the years…How I wish our planet was run by elephants’.
These words do not come from a commentator on the current political scene, but from Francoise Malby-Anthony’s wonderful account: An Elephant in my Kitchen.
No, I’m not going to write about ‘elephants and the Jewish problem’, just about elephants. I’ve never had an elephant in my kitchen, or my synagogue, or got close to one, though I have been in many rooms where they were purportedly present.
It’s been a week full of challenges; the marriage in hospital on Tuesday of a wonderful and wise friend who knows with good grace that she’s close to the end of her life; the faiths’ lobby for the climate on Wednesday; the terrible truth of a father and daughter photographed dead after trying to cross the Rio Grande into a different future…Through all this, that book about elephants and rhinos has spoken to my soul.
I’ve no excuse, no specific connection with this week’s Torah portion, for writing about elephants, except perhaps that the twelve spies sent out by Moses were terrified by the giants they saw in the land, though there is no mention of the latter possessing trunks. Or, perhaps, that in Perek Shirah, the mediaeval tract which ascribes a song to every creature, the elephant chants ‘How great are your works, O God’, a verse which, incorporated into the daily prayers, is a constant reminder to love and not destroy God’s world.
Francoise Malby-Anthony is a cosmopolitan Parisienne with a good job in the city who gives it all up after falling in love with Lawrence, a South African, to join him in creating a wildlife reserve for elephants, rhinos and their orphaned babies, Thula Thula, an oasis of safety amidst the horrors of poaching.. When Lawrence suddenly dies, she has no choice but to rise to the challenge and manage the place on her own. She is sustained by her deep love for the animals and their evident recognition of her.
After the scattering of her husband’s ashes, Francoise returns home sore at heart to find the whole herd of elephants gathered by the fence surrounding her homestead. There they stand, a natural minyan, a loving, loyal quorum, in quiet solidarity. On the first anniversary of his death, the elephants gather there again. How they know the date is a mystery belonging to a domain of intuitive knowledge we humans may never fathom.
The orphaned babies, rhinos and elephants, need bottles, blankets and, above all, love. They too experience post-traumatic stress. One baby rhino who saw his mothered slaughtered, suffers a terrible setback when he himself is shot. He recovers from the flesh-wound, but only physically, not emotionally. A carer has to sit with him for many days to prevent him from ending his life by submerging his head in a lake to drown his anguished heart.
They never abandon them, Francoise writes, describing how the elephants take orphaned infants into the herd. Hillel’s words ‘zil gmor – go learn,’ come to mind.
I am not proud to belong to the species which hacks these majestic and deeply feeling animals to pieces.
I fear they may be ivory decorations on a pair of rollers on which one of our Torah scrolls is wound: no doubt they date from the days when we still failed to realise how wrong killing for ivory truly is. If so, I want the ivory removed.
The Torah, God’s teaching, is Torat Chaim, a Torah of life and lovingkindness. We may have much to learn in this regard from creatures of whom we once thought that only their teeth and horns were of value.
No, Francoise’s book hasn’t made me want an elephant in my kitchen. But it has made me want to help preserve them alive, and keep them in my heart.