Fear and ferocity on the plains of the Serengeti

Between my visit to Rwanda, where we made our second tour of the genocide sites for the approaching 20th anniversary of the slaughter, and our son’s rabbinical ordination in Pretoria, South Africa, my wife and I fulfilled one of my dreams, to see the Serengeti.

The crossing of the Mara River by teeming hordes of wildebeest is one of the great attractions of Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, the last place on earth where the great herds still roam. But watching the animals is a great way to learn about so many other areas of life.

The first lesson is fear. The animals must cross the river in order to find better grazing pastures on the other side. But they’re terrified of the river, afraid they will drown, and especially afraid that they will be eaten by predators, the giant crocodiles that lurk within. So they stand on the edge of the river as their numbers swell from tens, to hundreds, to thousands, to tens of thousands, and sometimes hundreds of thousands. Paralyzed by fear, they are utterly incapable of moving forward, roaming from one part of the river to the other, finding security in numbers and being terrified of taking the first step. As you watch, you think of your own life and all the potential that remains locked within, dormant, waiting to breathe free, if only we could overcome fear.

Which leads to the second lesson. All the animals wait for is a single wildebeest to take the plunge, literally. If one animal moves away from the river, hundreds follow his retreat. But if after hours and hours of waiting, a single brave animal jumps into the river, the entire herd – thousands upon thousands – follow behind. It’s a sight to behold – few experiences in nature are comparable. But without that lone wildebeest believing in its strength and ability to navigate the rough current, all are left stranded on the side of the river where they will perish. That is the power of leadership and the contribution a single individual can make. It’s remarkable to witness.

Which leads us to the third lesson, about justice. Just after seeing the incredible crossing, we fulfilled a dream of mine, which was to see the great herds of the Serengeti plains in all their glory, with perhaps three hundred thousand wildebeest stretching out as far as the eye could see. From the time I was a child watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, I had heard of the endless savannah of the Serengeti. But here we were on its heights, looking down at so many wildebeest and zebras that they appeared like ants up to the horizon. Even with my binoculars I could not see the end. I was awe-struck and immediately thought of the beautiful verse in Psalms, “Oh, how wondrous and varied is Your creation, Oh Lord.”

Suddenly, from the corners of our eyes, we saw three cheetahs emerged. They moved majestically, deliberately, and slowly through the savannah. With utter fearlessness, strutting about, in my wife’s words, “like they owned the place,” they sauntered around, staring intently at the giant herds that surrounded them. Predators with nothing to fear, they pranced without a care in the world. But the reaction they caused was exactly the opposite. Like the sea splitting in two, the animals began slowly to retreat, in desperate fear of the fastest land animal on earth. Within minutes, a circle of perhaps a mile had opened around the cheetahs as they rolled in the grass, relaxing and playing, while terror gripped every animal around them. Gone were the endless herds of wildebeest. Absent were the countless zebras. All that remained in their place was a giant, empty circle, filled only with three cheetahs and our safari truck.

And then it hit me. In the jungle there is absolutely no justice. There was none to protect the weak from the strong. At one point, one of the cheetah started chasing the wildebeest without even any real intent, so it seemed, to catch them. They were mocking them, ridiculing their fear. They were getting off on their feeling of infinite power. On the savannah the strong dominated the weak. All of the creatures were easily divided into the predator and prey.

I contrasted the experience with something that had happened the day before. We were driving near the Mara river when we spotted another truck stuck below us in the mud. The more the driver stepped on the gas, the more the tires dug in. Soon the vehicle was nearly submerged. Our guide, Leonard Temba of Thomson Safaris, who took such excellent care of us, said, “We have to go and help them.” Soon three more trucks joined the effort. It took nearly an hour of pulling and tugging, putting trees under the tire, to get the truck unstuck. And it struck me that that truck, for all its weakness, was not left to its own desolation because humans live by the biblical responsibility of the strong protecting the weak, the saved rescuing the drowned, the powerful using their strength to protect the vulnerable.