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Parshas Re-eh (5772)

Rabbi Zee Meets the Zoo Rabbi

By Rabbi David "ZEE" Zauderer

A few months ago, while surfing the web in preparation for a class I was giving, I came across an interesting and provocative blog entry written by Natan Slifkin, a.k.a. the “Zoo Rabbi”. [In 1999, Rabbi Slifkin began teaching about the relationship between Judaism and the animal kingdom at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo. He then developed the popular Zoo Torah program, which he has since successfully operated in many cities across the globe. This program has led Rabbi Slifkin to be featured in television and radio shows as well as in countless newspapers and journals – and he has become widely known as the “Zoo Rabbi”. Rabbi Slifkin has a lifelong fascination with wildlife and has kept a wide variety of exotic pets. His work has led him teaching on safari in Africa, observing great white sharks preying upon seals, whale-watching in the Pacific, wrestling alligators in California, and behind the scenes at numerous zoological facilities worldwide. Rabbi Slifkin has also written numerous books on the topic of Judaism and the natural sciences – some of which are quite controversial.]

In this blog, Rabbi Slifkin was discussing a passage in the Talmud about a verse from the Psalms that we recite three times daily, and which also relates to this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Re’eh. I took issue with what Rabbi Slifkin wrote, and penned a response. I would like to share with you, my dear readers, Rabbi Slifkin’s initial blog entry as well as my response, in the hope that you will gain a better understanding of the verse in question, and will know what to have in mind when reciting it each day.

In Deuteronomy 15:11, G-d commands the Jewish people to give tzedakah (charity) to those who are in need. As the Torah states: “…you shall surely open your hand to your brother, to your poor, and to your destitute in your Land”.

It is noteworthy that in this commandment, the Torah uses the same expression - “open your hand” - that King David uses when describing how G-d, in his infinite kindness, feeds all of His creations every single day. "You open Your hand, and satisfy the desire of every living thing." (Psalms 145:16). It is this verse from the Psalms that Rabbi Slifkin attempts to explain in the following blog entry. My response, under the pen-name “Rabbi Zee”, follows:

The Zoo Rabbi writes….
Ummm.... no He doesn't!

"You open Your hand, and satisfy the desire of every living thing." (Psalms 145:16)

This is considered to be a very important verse. It's so important that it is one of the reasons why the Sages [of the Talmud] required us to say Ashrei [the Psalm which contains this verse] three times a day [see Berachos 4b]. It's so important that, according to the Shulchan Aruch [Code of Jewish Law], if one forgot to say it with proper concentration, one must recite it again.

When I started yeshivah gedolah [Talmudical Academy], and began to have real kavannah [intent] in davening [prayer] for the first time in my life, the following question occurred to me. He opens His hand, and satisfies the desire of every living thing? Ummm.... no He doesn't! From eels to elephants, there are creatures that die from hunger or thirst.

I asked this question to my Rosh Yeshivah [Dean]. As I recall, he was somewhat was taken aback by the question. He eventually suggested that the ratzon [“desire” or “will”] mentioned in the verse is not the will of every living creature, but rather the will of God.

This appeared to me to be a rather forced interpretation of the verse. Furthermore, it rather limits the praise that the verse is giving. In the context of the lavish praise that this chapter espouses, it seems rather unlikely that here it is saying that G-d feeds only those that He wants to feed. Besides, a similar question can be asked about other verses with which no such escape clause exists. Does G-d really support ALL the fallen, and straighten ALL the bent?

I had a similar question about pesukim [verses] regarding bitachon [trust], which seem to imply that if you trust in G-d, He will help you in the way that you desire. My Rosh Yeshivah claimed that this is really true - that if one has sufficient trust in G-d, He will do whatever you need. But aside from this being an extremely unhealthy approach to teach young men (it forces them to attempt to brainwash themselves), could it really be the meaning of these verses? Could anyone believe that G-d is really guaranteed to rescue you from all harm, if you have sufficient trust that He will do so?

Only much later, when I was able to appraise things in a more mature way, did the answer become obvious to me. The authors of these psalms lived in a much harsher world than ours, and were well aware that these statements were not actually factually true. But such psalms are expressing religious sentiments, hopes and wishes. They are describing an idealized form of reality, not the factual reality.

The question that I now have is as follows: How is it that there are so many people who have been saying "You open Your hand, and satisfy the desire of every living thing" three times a day with great kavannah, but have apparently never thought about what it actually could possibly mean?

Rabbi Zee responds....
"Ummm…. yes He does!"

Rav Avraham Chaim Feuer, in his commentary to Tehillim (Mesorah Publications), quotes Maharam Alvilada who writes the following: "The open hand of G-d supplies sustenance without cease. If certain creations remain in want, their sad state suggests that they aren't fit recipients of Divine blessing. Apparently, they are unworthy of being a receptacle for the Divine gifts."

Hard to argue with that.

Furthermore, the Zohar in Parshas Pinchas explains that the pasuk [verse] before this one - "V'atah Nosein Lahem es Achlam B'ito – and You give them their food in its proper time" (see Psalms 145:15) - refers to Mezonei D'Asirei, the sustenance of the rich, who get all their needs filled, while this pasuk - "U'Masbia L'chol Chai Ratzon – And satisfy the desire of every living thing" - refers to Mezonei D'Miskenei, the sustenance of the poor, who G-d satisfies not with bread or money, but with ratzon, i.e. the divinely-instilled desire, hope and courage to live on and be satisfied and even happy with their lot.

The Olas Tamid (written by Rabbi Shmuel Hominer ZT"L) adds that since some of us are rich and get what we want and some of us are poor and don't, we recite the next pasuk "Tzaddik Hashem B'Chol Derachav – G-d is righteous in all His ways...." to acknowledge that G-d knows what is best for each of us - to either have "Achlam B'Ito" [and get all our needs filled] or just have "Ratzon" [and be satisfied with what we have].

Now the fact that some people are not merutzeh [content] with their destitute situation doesn't prove that they can't be if they so choose.

So the next time we recite the verse "You open Your hand, and satisfy the desire of every living thing” in our daily prayers, let us remember to have in mind that G-d gives every one of His creations the ratzon and desire and courage to live on and make peace with what He has chosen to give us, even if all our needs have not yet been filled.

May G-d bless all of us with happiness, contentment, and peace always. Amen.

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