Two-and-a-half-year-old Sadie, granddaughter of my friends Les and Sheila, lives in Singapore. Recently, she had a run-in with a monkey. It deserves our attention.
Sadie lives in a ground-floor apartment with a patio abutting a rainforest. The family was outside, Sadie holding a banana. A monkey snatched it. It was a bit upsetting. This could not have taken place in San Francisco—not because wildlife doesn’t encroach on the city but because we don’t have monkeys. Coyotes strolling our sidewalks when few people are out? Yes.
We humans, especially in cities, think we’re safe from “wild animals.” Our fear is normal. Humans have had to defend themselves from lions, tigers and bears—oh my—wolves, wild dogs and others whose habitats we invade.
The Torah notes how human dispossession of animals creates a fragile environment. God tells Moses, leading the Israelites to the already-populated Promised Land, “I will not drive them [the Hivites, Canaanites and Hittites] out before you in a single year, lest the land become desolate and the wild beasts multiply to your hurt” (Exodus 23:29).
As humans spread out, animals’ territories shrink. Often, that drives both closer. Residents in rural areas find bears rummaging through their trash or breaking into their homes. In suburbia, deer eat up gardens. Let’s not even talk raccoons.
The coronavirus pandemic also has shifted the balance. Media stories report wildlife roaming tourist-deserted places in national parks, and salamanders in the northeast swarming roads at night with traffic almost nonexistent.
Sadie and her family face a dilemma. How are they to live close to wild animals and coexist? Having a patio next to a forest and taking a banana outside invites monkeys to do what’s natural: go after a convenient food source. Sadie’s parents can control this to an extent by not taking food outside. They also have to be careful about opening doors, since monkeys have invaded their kitchen.
We see firsthand that civilization imposes a veneer on nature and a thin one. Monkeys grabbing bananas represents the least of our worries.
Humans living together in groups larger than family size do so based on norms and ethics, civil and religious law, customs written and unwritten. In times of stress, people tend to panic. Our innate need to survive often impels us to trample laws and customs previously held to be inviolable. We take an “us versus them” stance, bare our teeth like the animals we are, howl defiance to defend our families—even when we’re not under attack—and often provoke others to prepare for, even use, violence in their own defense.
As the COVID-19 pandemic established itself, gun sales in the U.S. rose.
New York governor Andrew Cuomo, highlighting his state’s mental-health programs, encourages people to ask, “How are you feeling, really?” Rote displays of wellbeing can be misleading. Most people are scared. Many respond not by expressing their fears but through hostility. They find enemies in other groups and in the governments, national and local, that seek to limit the pandemic’s spread and protect community health.
Sadie’s dilemma can be solved fairly easily. America’s dilemma—the potential breakdown of civility and restraint, a permanent fracture in the political system—requires great vision and effort. This demands seeing each other as part of the solution, not the problem.
To the spirits of those who gave their all to defend the nation (thinking of you, Howie): Rest in peace, may your memory be for a blessing. And may this Memorial Day offer us much to think about beyond the family backyard barbecue.
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