Vayeitzei: ‘Quiet Jungle’

The sprawling green carpet of the jungle canopy stretched as far as the eye could see. Though invisible amid the dense, deep blanket of trees and plant life covering an enormous expanse of land, many animals could be heard calling and singing, as though tuning up for the beginning of a concert. The eerie wails of howler monkeys overlapped the long duets of male and female gibbons. Constant, piercing hammer blows from the small bell bird in the tree-tops ensured that there was never a moment’s peace.

Other animals were rushing about collecting food from their favourite fruit trees. Someone familiar with jungle life would have been able to describe the activity you might have witnessed perched somewhere high up in a tall fig tree. There would have been monkeys scampering about, sniffing figs for ripeness before cramming them into their mouths. Whilst only one or two orang utans, red haired apes, may have been in view, for they like to be alone, nearby branches might well have been disturbed by whole families of gibbons. Fruit-eating birds would have been creating a commotion on the thinner, outermost twigs; parrots would have been hanging upside down by one foot, holding their fruit in the claws of the other, whilst hornbills and toucans would have been throwing their food into the air with their long beaks and catching it in the back of their throats.

This was certainly a jungle as full with frenzied activity as any other. Great eagles were as at home here as tree-living cats, such as the clouded leopard. Macaws and other birds had to share the air with such unlikely characters as flying squirrels, flying lizards, flying frogs and, strangest of all, flying snakes. Beautiful birds of paradise would be dancing on low branches, flashing their beautiful, brightly coloured wings and crests in superb displays of their splendour, with thousands of weird and wonderful insects looking on.

Many of the creatures that lived here, however, were not easy to spot without the benefit of good binoculars or, better still, special climbing equipment. A large number of them lived some forty or fifty metres above the ground, amongst the leaves of the thick mattress of high treetops. For this reason, many expeditions were made every year to study this world of life which remained a secret to all but those who were dedicated to discovering its mysteries. Furthermore, no expedition left disappointed, for, even without any interesting sightings, the wonderful chorus of sounds was always enough by itself to inspire a return visit.

This particular day the jungle was no less alive with sound and activity. The air was quite still, and therefore perfect for carrying great distances the various clicks and whirrs, howls and screams, trills, coughs and echoes. Then a new, mechanical sound began to rise above the general hum. A jeep emerged from the trees, pulling behind it a large, covered trailer, diving and bouncing as it sped eagerly towards the dirt road which led to the nearby village. In a few moments, it was gone, but the noise of its engine was immediately replaced by another rumbling, clattering vehicle. It was a second jeep, approaching the outskirts of the jungle from a small, enclosed camp site near the rhinoceros pool one kilometre away.

The car came to a halt only a few metres from the first real examples of jungle life. Great, centuries old tree trunks stood on a dimly lit floor, which was uninteresting except for a thin layer of dead leaves and rotting vegetation which had fallen from the more sunny, livelier heights of the canopy above. Dressed in the kind of safari clothes which had obviously been bought in stylish, expensive city stores, the five explorers excitedly left the car and began their trek, heavily laden with bags of food, tools, cameras, recording equipment, and first-aid supplies.

“It is! It’s definitely a Rafflesia!” exclaimed one of the men. This expedition party comprised five men, one of them a professor and the others students. One of the students had been fortunate enough to discover a plant which has the largest flower in the world, measuring one metre across.

“Well, young man,” began the professor more calmly. “It’s certainly large enough, but move a little closer to get a better look.” As the student approached the huge, leathery, maroon petals, which were covered with warts, and which the professor knew to indeed be Rafflesia, the young man caught an awful stench in his nose and jumped backwards, then quickly requested: “Now that I’ve seen one, and smelt one, Professor, can we try not to find any more!”

The group took some photographs of the giant flower, and continued on their way. Only a few minutes later, however, the professor stood still and, holding up his right hand, whispered “Listen……” The four younger men stood still also, and listened as instructed, only their eyes moving about. The professor suddenly grabbed hold of the sleeve of the student nearest to him, before demanding: “Tell me, what do you hear?!” The student, though sure that he must be missing something, simply answered honestly: “Nothing at all, sir, I can not hear a thing.” “Exactly! It’s unbelievable! I have been here many times before, and there has never been even a moment’s peace, let alone a lasting silence such as this!”

The group continued on for a while, but it started to become strangely clear that there was something wrong. Not only was the jungle silent. Any animals and birds which the group encountered appeared to be suffering from some kind of illness. Any creatures, large or small, that they noticed, would be sitting still, completely inactive. However, examinations carried out by the professor showed that there were no signs of widespread physical sickness and so the expedition was left with a bit of a mystery.

“The creatures in this jungle,” began the expedition leader, “appear to be upset about something. I know it sounds ludicrous but for themoment that’s the only explanation I have! In any case,” he continued, “there’s little point in us proceeding right now. We can’t make recordings of bell bird calls when bell birds aren’t calling, and we won’t be able to get pictures of gibbons jumping about in fig trees if they’re all sulking about something once we get up there!”

The professor said they should return to their jeep and drive into the nearest village, where someone might have an explanation for what they had seen. They did so, and as they entered the village, they noticed signs directing them to an animal hospital. It was decided that this would be a good place to begin asking questions.

A large, single-storey, clean, white building, the animal hospital stood out against the background of mud huts and wooden shacks. Big, black letters on the front of the building actually read ‘Medical Centre and Animal Hospital’. The building housed both a proper hospital for people and another for animals, but, most well known for its work with animals of all kinds, it was mainly referred to as the animal hospital.

The group was welcomed into the building by a tall, thin man in his fifties who wore a long, white coat, and introduced himself as Doc. Doc wore an almost permanent broad grin, which took some getting used to. However, what took even more getting used to was the description he gave of his work in the hospital: “If there’s any surgery to be done, on a human or animal, I’m the man who does it!”

“Human or animal?” echoed the professor, never before having heard of anyone skilled enough to operate on both people and animals.

“That’s right. You see, when I opened this place I was only working with people, and we had a wonderful vet to work in the animal clinic. As the vet became ill, however, I also started doing some of his work, under his guidance, of course. This went on for five or six years, and when he finally passed away I found myself able to continue doing surgery in both parts of the clinic, without having to spend the little money that we have on employing another vet. I do have other staff, but there is hardly a moment, day or night, when my services are not called upon. I love my work but I do worry a little about what the hospital would do if I became sick myself! Now, how can I help you?”

Doc had to wait a moment for a response because his audience did not realise straight away that he had finished talking. The professor then began to explain everything, the nature of their research, the silence they had encountered and the strange behaviour of the animals they had seen. Doc was as puzzled as his guests. He told them that he had lived and worked in and near to the jungle for close to thirty years and had never known of such an occurrence before. There was no explanation that he could suggest, but promised to accompany the group when it returned to the jungle, to see if it was still (and as still!) as they had left it. In the meantime he offered his guests a short tour of the hospital’s grounds, which they were pleased to accept.

As Doc led the professor and his students past some pens where various animals were recovering from a variety of operations, he began to ask questions, almost like a detective might, in order to help him make sense of the bizarre scene which had been described to him.

“Are you sure there wasn’t a sound?……. Exactly how was that monkey sitting?…….. Describe that three-toed sloth to me again; was it eating any cecropia leaves? You say you had heard noises from some distance away, but that all was silent once you were up close; did anything strange happen as you approached the jungle, shortly before you stopped the jeep?”

“I can’t really tell you any more than I have done already,” said the professor, sighing. It was beginning to seem as if the whole expedition was coming to nothing. The lack of activity in the jungle was certainly a fascinating mystery, but it prevented the collection of many pages of observations with which the exploration party had hoped to be able to return home.

“There is one thing,” began one of the students, “but it’s unlikely to be very important.”

“Go on,” said Doc, “you never know.”

The student had remembered the first jeep, which had sped away from the jungle just as his group’s car had been approaching it.

“……… and it was towing a big, grey, covered trailer……..”

The student was interrupted by one of his colleagues who now also remembered the other vehicle. “Like that one!” The second student pointed to a trailer exactly like the one which had just been described.

“That’s the only one of it’s kind, gentlemen; I made it myself ‘specially for transporting sick animals from the jungle, then back again when they are healthy. Now, let me see, what was I doing up at the jungle when you were there? Aha! Of course! Of course! Of course! Haha! Haha! You must excuse me, gentlemen, my memory isn’t what it used to be. Please follow me.”

Doc hurried to the far end of the main enclosure, where there were some pens for larger animals, closely followed by his visitors. Now quite breathless, but baring all his teeth and gums in a broader grin than ever, Doc swung his left arm around, pointed in the general direction of a large, flapping ear, and proudly announced:

“That, my friends, is a forest-dwelling elephant. It was this beautiful beast that I was carrying in my trailer when you saw me leaving the jungle, and it has suddenly dawned on me what I have done. Once, when I was still learning from the vet whom I told you about before, he took me aside and gave me a warning that I have never really taken seriously, until today. He told me that there is a very rare family of forest dwelling elephants in our jungle. These elephants, he explained, help and protect all other living creatures with whom they share their vast home, and in return the elephants are respected and loved by every one of those creatures. Furthermore, he went on, the head of the family is the patriarch, the elder and chief elephant, and he is the most beloved of all of them amongst the other animals of the jungle. ‘If ever you need to take the patriarch away from the jungle,’ he warned me, ‘be quick and return him as soon as you can, for I have no doubt that a great sadness will fall upon the jungle while he is gone’.

Hurry, my friends, let us return the patriarch now; his operation was a minor one and he is already regaining his strength.”

Doc brought his own jeep around in order to hook it up to the trailer, before leading the patriarch in. Then Doc, with the elephant in tow, and the professor with his four students in their own car, all set off to take the patriarch home and, they all hoped, cure the jungle of its depression.

The two cars stopped a short distance from where Doc had earlier driven away with his great grey patient. Once the small ramp at the opening of the trailer was down, Doc gently led the patriarch out. In the next moments, six pairs of eyes and six pairs of ears became completely overwhelmed, as a sad, sleepy jungle came alive with movement, colour and sound. It was as if the very trees were rejoicing in the beloved patriarch’s homecoming, as even they danced together with the thousands of little feet that shook their branches.

Doc returned to the animal hospital, and the professor once again led his students in amongst the giant tree trunks, carefully avoiding the Rafflesia, in order to begin the expedition in earnest. However, they all knew that their greatest discovery had already been made. This was a place where, despite their many differences, all the jungle’s inhabitants were united in their love and respect for one particular creature, and simply because this one creature, together with his family, practised love for others.

***

The patriarch who leaves his home at the beginning of our parashah is Yaakov Avinu. In the first verse of the parashah, Bereishit, 28, 10, we read:

“Yaakov left Beer Sheva and went toward Charan.”

Rashi asks why the Torah tells us that Yaakov left Be’er Sheva; we would have known this if the verse had simply stated: ‘Yaakov went to Charan’. “Why, then, mention his departing?” asks Rashi. He then answers this question as follows:

“This tells us that the departure of a righteous person from his place makes an impression, for while a righteous person is in the city, he is its glory, he is its brilliance, he is its splendour. Once he has left there, its glory has departed, its brilliance has departed, its splendour has departed.”

The departure of Yaakov Avinu may have had a similar effect on the inhabitants of Be’er Sheva as did the departure of the elephant patriarch in our story on the inhabitants of the jungle. It is often only the reaction of others to the loss of an individual which tells us how beloved that individual really was. Yaakov was a great tzaddik, and the influence of his character and deeds would have extended far beyond his close family and friends. Yet, because a person is rarely fully appreciated until his absence implants a deep sense of loss in the hearts of those who remain, the Torah feels it necessary to speak not only of Yaakov’s destination but also of the place he was leaving.

It is important to recognise any greatness in people around us, and to try to benefit from it for as long as it is possible to do so.

***

© J. Richards 2004

%d bloggers like this: