Mama is 59 years old and her life is dwindling. She is weak and refuses to eat or drink. Curled up in a fetal position, her eyes are filled with pathos but also have a faraway look. She’s in a world of her own, seemingly preparing to step into another world…
Mama is a chimpanzee in an enclosure at the Royal Burgers’ Zoo in Arnnhem, Holland. Her dying days are captured on film and this short video which was shot in 2016 only weeks before her death has only recently been circulated widely.
What’s remarkable about this short clip (which is included here) is what follows. Jan van Hooff, renowned biologist and founder of the zoo’s chimpanzee colony, who has known Mama since 1972, but not seen her for many years, comes to visit her.
At first she seems oblivious of his presence but then suddenly her whole being lights up as she recognises her old friend. She opens her mouth with what can only be described as a huge smile; she tenderly embraces him, putting her large hands gently around his neck. She gazes at him and chortles with affection.
It’s a bracing moment and while there is a danger of anthropomorphising, ascribing human emotion to animals, this does seem to be an embrace of love and connection.
It moved one reviewer to reflect: “As I watched, I thought about what was happening to this ape at the end of her life and I also experienced powerful mental images of my own mother, who two years ago at age 88 entered hospice care and soon after quietly died. This is what knowledge of animals’ thinking and feeling behaviour does for us, I think – it makes us realize explicitly how much we share”.
Mama died a week after van Hooff’s encounter with her.
I got to thinking of Mama last week when reading the Torah story about Balam’s amazing talking donkey. The hapless ass, after being beaten mercilessly by her master who cannot see the danger that she apprehends, opens her mouth and rebukes him: “What have I done to you that you struck me these three times… Am I not your donkey that you have ridden upon me all your life until this day?” (Numbers 22:29-30)
This strange interlude highlights for us the importance of respect for all of God’s sentient beings or as Hilel put it “Love all of God’s creatures”. It reminds us of our responsibility to care for them and to recognise they too feel pain and possibly experience a range of emotions that we aren’t even aware of.
But more than this, maybe apes and asses are a reminder to us of keeping compassion and caring alive in our hearts and actions. What should distinguish us as human beings is our capacity to take care of the vulnerable, to look out for the fragile. This is surely one of the calling-cards of our Abrahamic destiny: to use our own pain to connect to the widow and orphan, the needy and stranger amongst us.
Attending a two-day retreat for the rabbi’s of Victoria, this was one of the strong messages of our conference: Our responsibility as leaders to reach out, not only to the passionately committed, but also to the lost and the lonely. There were thus sessions on child protection and inclusion of GLBTI, the recognition of the aspirations of women and how to be effective at life-cycle events.
I gave a session on ‘Burn with passion but don’t burn-out’. I addressed the challenge to be leaders of passion and principle, but also to recognise our own frailties and to look after ourselves. Rabbis, like people of all walks of life, suffer from burn-out. In the relentless and highly demanding life of a communal rabbi we are also prone to a loss of energy and direction. We too can suffer from burn-out and need to recognise its signs (physical, emotional and social) and to work to prevent it. The World Health Organisation talks of the 3 dimensions of burn-out: Feelings of energy-depletion; increased mental-distance from your job (feeling negative or cynical about work) and reduced professional efficiency.
Watching the clip about Mama reminded me about the importance of keeping compassion alive, of the vitality of connection to others and how passion infuses life with meaning.
The challenge for those who care for animals; the challenge for rabbis and leaders, for communities and individuals is to be a “burning bush”. The bush, you will recall, “was burning in the fire but the bush was not consumed” (Exodus 3:2). In other words we should burn with passion and inspiration, be fired with compassion and the pursuit of justice but be careful not to be consumed by our own enthusiasm and energy. Burn with conviction but don’t burn yourself out!