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Sunday, 27 September 2015

Tame your inner beast

Daf Yomi Nazir 35


Chaim Yankel is down and out.  He’s been scouring the help-wanted classifieds for months, to no avail.  Finally, an ad catches his eye, “Assistant Zookeeper Wanted.”  Figuring it’s bakovadik (honourable) enough and that he’s a quick learner, he applies and gets an interview.

“To tell you the truth, it’s not exactly a management position,” the head zookeeper tells him. “Due to mismanagement, the zoo has spent so much money renovating the grounds and improving the habitat that we can no longer afford to import the ape we needed to replace our recently deceased one. So until we can, we’ve decided to put an actor in an ape suit.” Out of desperation, Chaim Yankel accepts the offer.

At first, his conscience keeps nagging him that he is being dishonest by fooling the visitors to the zoo. And Chaim Yankel feels undignified in the ape-suit, stared at by crowds who watch his every move. But after a few days on the job, he begins to be amused by all the attention, and starts to put on a show for the zoo-goers: hanging upside-down from the branches by his legs, swinging about on the vines, climbing up the cage walls, and roaring with all his might whilst beating his chest. Soon, he's drawing a sizable crowd.

One day, while Chaim Yankel is swinging on the vines showing off to a group of school kids, his hand slips, and he goes flying over the fence into the neighbouring cage, the lion's den. Terrified, he backs up as far from the approaching lion as he can, covers his eyes with his paws, and prays at the top of his lungs, “Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem echad!”
The lion opens its powerful jaws and roars, “Baruch shem k'vod malchuso l'olam va'ed!”
“Quiet, you fools,” mutters the bear from a third cage. “You'll get us all fired!”

The Torah declares, “If a person shall give his friend a donkey, ox, or sheep, or any animal to guard . . . and it be stolen from him, he shall make restitution unto the owner.”
“Rashi” explains: This verse excludes bears and lions, since they are wild and not guardable.

The Gemara in Tractate Bava Metzia explains that the verse is dealing with a shomer sachar – a custodian that is financially remunerated for his efforts.  The expectation is that in exchange for the compensation, he will be responsible for any foreseeable mishaps such as the item being lost or stolen.  Should they occur, he would have to pay the owner back for losing the item entrusted to him.

The Talmud in Bava Metzia states that the verse excludes servants, documents and land.  And indeed, the Rosh on our Gemara says as much.  But Pseudo-Rashi (we don’t exactly know the authorship of the commentary on Tractate Nazir) suggests a novel interpretation: by specifying donkeys, oxen, and sheep, the verse is coming to exclude wild beasts, such as lions and bears.

Picture the scenario:  Your friend knocks on your door, in his hand is a leash.  At the end of the leash is his pet grizzly bear.  He’s going on vacation and he needs you to bear-sit for a couple of weeks.  You’re his buddy, so you’re not going to say no – as scary as the prospect of having a grizzly bear around the house sounds.  He thanks you profusely and off he goes to Jamaica.

The first couple of days are fine.  The bear sits down to dinner with the family.  He uses his knife and fork and portrays incredible table manners.  But by the third day, he just can’t control himself.  It begins with eating with his bear-hands and refusing to bentch (say grace) at the end of the meal.  After dinner, he’s hogging the TV remote – all he wants to watch is The Berenstains.  While he’s in the restroom, you manage to ‘steal’ the remote.   He gets back and realizing what’s happened, he throws a massive tantrum, storms out the front door, and disappears.

You figure he’ll be home by bedtime, but there’s no sign of him.  Next day, still nothing.  Finally, your friend returns from vacation and you sheepishly tell him you lost the bear.  The halacha, says Pseudo-Rashi, is that you’re not responsible, because ‘you can’t be expected to guard a bear.’  Bears are simply not tame creatures.

When you came down into this world, the Almighty gave you a nefesh habehamis – an animal soul – to guard.  He’s ferocious and will stop at nothing to get his way.  For the most part, he wants the opposite of everything you seek on your Divine mission.  You’re interested in connecting to Heaven; he wants worldly pleasures.  It’s not easy, but you’ve been entrusted with the beast; and as He sent you down into this world, you promised the Almighty that you would do your very best to guard His pet.

The good news is that you are halachically not culpable for failing to curb the ferocity of the bear inside.  Wild beasts are simply not guardable.  All you agreed to do is to make your best effort at taming him and keeping him under lock and key.  But sometimes he will just barge out the front door, leaving you wondering what went wrong.

Don’t give up.  This bear will be back.  You will have further opportunities to watch over his table manners.  All the Almighty expects of you is that you do your very best.  King Solomon declares in Ecclesiastes, “For there is not a righteous man upon earth that does good and sins not.”  Sooner or later, that bear will walk out the front door; for the most part, he’s not tameable.  Your job is simply to do your very best to keep him under lock and key for as long as you can.


When you were sent on your Divine mission, you were given a travelling partner who is going to kvetch every step of the way.  Be nice but firm and don’t let him get the better of you.  May you learn to hide the key to the front door and never give up on your mission to strive to tame the bear inside; so that by the time you return him to his Master, he will be completely transformed!