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Sunday, January 3, 2010



Please note: Each of my public radio essays was written and aired at different times between 1999 and now. None of them is posted in chronological order. Hopefully, the ideas and insights in each of them will transcend the times and places about which I’ve written. I hope you enjoy what I have to offer.

My wife and I recently spent a few days in Santa Cruz, California, on the shores of Monterey Bay which is home to the National Marine Sanctuary, one of the largest and biologically richest marine life preserves in the world. A favorite pastime on the bay for locals and tourists alike is to get on a boat and go whale watching. All year long, depending upon the season, you can see different species of these beautiful creatures, along with their cousins the dolphins, as well as sea lions, otters, seals, and a host of graceful seabirds. Each of the whale watching programs -and there are many- markets the superiority of its tours with fantastic claims such as, “whale sightings guaranteed or your next trip is free,” as if marine life will perform on command for the pleasure of us humans who gawk from these boats, insisting on getting our money’s worth with a great show. The whales, of course, have an agenda which is radically different from ours. They swim, breed, rest and play at their own pace, unaware of little else except employing the skills of survival with which they have been endowed over billions of years. Unlike dolphins, who relish chasing and swimming near the boats that come out to sea, whales like to keep to themselves, content to dive and surface where and when they choose, oblivious to the humans invading their homes.

Out in the boat, a few miles away from shore, on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, we were surrounded by the peace and stillness of endless water, along with pods of dolphin and beautiful grey whales. A once endangered species, greys are now estimated to number over 26,000 along the Pacific coast. Marine biologists, two of whom were conducting our tour, study these mammals with great care and respect, and they work hard to enlighten the layperson about how these creatures live. Our guides taught us some incredible things. Did you know that the greys migrate yearly from the Bering Sea near Alaska to Baja California and back? That is a 12,000 mile round trip between their winter and summer homes with their entire families. Imagine trying to take your kids or your grandchildren on a three hour trip from Albany to New York City in a car. Think about what that involves and you’ll realize that we do not hold a candle to the whales. Did you know that greys have such huge lung capacity that they only need to come up out of the water to breathe every seven to eleven minutes? (Remember, whales and dolphins are mammals, not fish. They do not have gills.) The most conditioned swimmer or diver would be lucky to stay under water without scuba gear for a few minutes before gasping for air. Did you know that like a lot of marine life, greys use echolocation, a built in sonar system which allows them to guide themselves through pitch black water without ever having to see a thing? I can’t find my way from Albany to some parts of Latham, even when using a map in broad daylight. The guides had me hooked. To quote America’s children, the greatest of all scientists, whales are mad cool.

We also learned about some profoundly disturbing features of the life of whales. Our guides quite matter-of-factly described to us the predatory battles which take place between female grey whales and their cousins the Orca, or killer whales who share the water with them. When hungry, Orca will attack baby greys and eat them. Like all mothers since the beginning of time, female greys fend off Orca fiercely by slapping them with their powerful tails or biting them until they leave the babies alone. Commenting on this grotesque whale-on-whale violence, our guide Frank mused nonchalantly, “What are you gonna do? Orcas also have to eat.”

Unable to enjoy anything without taking at least a few moments to ponder anxiously its moral significance, I couldn’t help thinking about what Frank had said. With all of their highly evolved intelligence and social behavior, you would think that whales would have found ways to survive which are less brutal to their own kind, but they haven’t. Even more vexing are the scary, apparent similarities between whale behavior and that of human mammals. We pride ourselves on our moral and social sophistication, yet we can be just as predatory, whether we are engaged in war with each other or simply eating other animals. For all of our presumed evolutionary superiority, we continue to exploit and to prey upon other species and upon each other.

It was the philosopher Thomas Hobbes who taught that when we are left to our own devices in the state of nature, our lives remain “nasty, brutish, and short,” with no purpose to living except to attack one another out of selfish motives, and then to die. Even out of the state of nature, in what passes for society, life often appears to fit Hobbes’ description perfectly. It is no wonder that Hobbes was committed to the idea of an autocratic, iron fisted regime which people would impose upon themselves for the purposes of maintaining moral and social order. It is interesting that Hobbes referred to such a regime as the Leviathan, the monstrous and powerful mythical whale mentioned a number of times in the Bible. Perhaps we should go one step further than Hobbes: rather than live under the watchful eye of the great political whale, maybe we should give up being human, slink back into the sea from which we emerged at the beginning of time, and become like the great sea creatures. We might spare ourselves a whole lot of pain that way.

Yet each time I ponder the pain caused by our predatory side that makes us look more whale than human, I realize that my very ability to ponder is part of what makes us more human than whale. Though I have no intimate knowledge of the inner life of whales, I believe it is safe to assume that when Orca attacks a baby grey, it isn’t thinking about how a morally free choice is being made or about its disastrous consequences for the victim. Orca is responding in a very primitive and instinctive way to hunger, and nothing else. Over billions of years, Orca and grey whales have evolved the capacity to hunt, the tools of echolocation, great lungs, and the ability to travel enormous distances. These things are their gifts which help them to survive and which make them wonderful. Yet the burden and the glory of having to choose between brutality and beneficence, and having to accept responsibility for these choices, belong to human beings alone. For all of their sophistication, whales do not argue about good and evil, or fight, or kiss and make up, or feel remorse, or ask forgiveness, or repent, or accept apologies. Since the day that Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil we have been blessed and cursed with that knowledge and with the ability to act upon it. Admittedly, human freedom is often an unbearable paradox. Our lives possess dignity and meaning precisely because we are equally free to prey upon each other as we are to pray for each other. Were we programmed to be consistently good our world would be much nicer but we would be irrelevant because our moral choice would have been obliterated. Human freedom is as indispensable as it is terrifying.

There are times in my life when I wish I could be like the whales, floating gracefully in the sea and living in the moment, free of the anxieties of moral, emotional, and spiritual struggle and ambiguity. I suspect that we all fantasize about how pleasant it would be just to be from birth until death. Yet, thankfully, this is not our reality. Since that time when we climbed out of the sea to begin the journey called living, our visions, our choices, our beastliness and our beauty have made the human story perhaps the greatest one ever told. If I may badly misquote Robert Frost, we have taken the roads less traveled by...and that has made a whale of a difference.

Dan Ornstein is rabbi of Congregation Ohav Shalom, and a writer living in Albany.
© 2010 By Rabbi Dan Ornstein.

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