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Scared Monkeys
Nosson Slifkin

Scared Monkeys

by Nosson Slifkin

In a cage, in a certain British zoo, sits a tamarin. Tamarins are small members of the monkey family, hailing from the jungles of South America. They are about the size of a small rabbit, with dense brown fur and short but dexterous limbs. This particular tamarin is a cotton-top tamarin, so called due to its shock of snow-white fur on top of its head.

Its cage is strangely furnished. Rather than the branches and logs we would expect, there are instead sheets of plastic mesh hanging down from the ceiling, as well as some wooden trelliswork. What's the sense in that, wonders the observer. But the tamarin knows well the sense in it. For these artificial materials provide a much better climbing frame than even the best branches.

The tamarin's meal is served. Rather than arriving in a tray, it arrives in a deep container of sawdust. This is not fast food the tamarin must rummage around for a while in the sawdust to retrieve all of the morsels. If the tamarin were more intelligent, he would be thinking, What's the sense in that? But the observer understands; he sees that the tamarin is forced to develop the stimulation of foraging that would normally be lost in captivity.

A shadow passes overhead. All of the tamarins in the cage look up. Above the skylight at the top of the cage glides a figure. It is a piece of cardboard shaped like an eagle, a common predator of tamarins, moved along by a robotic arm.

The reaction of the tamarins is instantaneous. Their humanlike faces fill with raw terror. Piercing shrieks sound across the cage as the tamarins scramble for safety. The agonizing horror of impending doom tears their nerves to shreds. They cower in their sleeping quarters, trembling in fear.

The shadow passes from view and the sunlight shines unblocked through the skylight. Several minutes pass. Cautiously, their pulses still racing, the tamarins peek out of their boxes. After a few more minutes, they are leaping amongst the trelliswork once more, with an ever-watchful eye upwards.

If tamarins were intelligent, they would be asking, What's the sense in that? Why do we have to suffer from the attacks of eagles? For the observer, who sees that the eagle is not even real, the question is even stronger. What's the sense in that, he wonders. Why cause needless suffering to the animal? What could possibly be the purpose?

The tamarin keeper knows the answer. He knows why the cage furnishings are so unorthodox, he knows why the food is buried in sawdust and he knows the reason for making the animals suffer the terror of an impending eagle attack.

For this is one of the more progressive zoos. Its keepers understand that for an animal to thrive in captivity, it needs more than just food and water. And it is not a matter of giving it lots of space. In this zoo, the keeper understands the animal's real needs those that are met in the perfect tamarin cage of the jungle. In the jungle, tamarins climb. They forage. And they flee in terror from eagles.

How does the tamarin benefit from fleeing from eagles? It isn't entirely clear. It might be the occasional extra surge of adrenaline that fires up its body; it might be a factor in psychological balance in health. Whatever the reason, the fact is that this zoo boasts tamarins that are physically and emotionally healthy and breed well.

Zos chukkas haTorah, "This is the chok of the Torah," is the telling phrase with which the Torah introduces the topic of parah adumah. Parah adumah is the quintessential chok, the mitzvah for which we can discern no explanation. The ashes of the red cow make tahor those who are tamei, and make tamei those who are tahor where's the sense in that? Yet this mitzvah is called "the chok of the Torah," the mitzvah which fundamentally defines the nature of God's relationship to us and gives us advance warning about it.

Parah adumah tells us that this relationship is not necessarily going to make any sense to us. God is notifying us that He is going to do many things that we simply won't understand. Just like the little tamarin in the cage.

The most significant example is with suffering. The question of why bad things happen to good people is the perennial and ultimate mystery. As discussed previously in this forum, the answers offered are not always applicable. Sometimes, the only answer is that there is no answer at least, not one that mortal man can comprehend.

But that raises no doubts as to G-d's existence. On the contrary if we were to understand all events, that would raise problems. For with parah adumah, God has said that there will definitely be things that we will not understand. And that's the way it should be. After all, He is omnipotent and omniscient His ways really ought to be a little beyond us.

Still, to the tiny extent that we can understand His ways, it's a good idea to try to do so. The Ramban writes that "it is the duty of every created being who serves [God] with love and awe to investigate His intentions, to reveal the justness of the judgment and the truthfulness of the verdict to the fullest extent of his ability." The famous psychologist Victor Frankl discussed with a therapeutic group whether an ape being continually injected to develop a cure for polyomyelitis serum would ever be able to grasp the meaning of its suffering. They agreed that it would not. Replied Dr. Frankl: "And what about man? Are you sure that the human world is a terminal point in the evolution of the cosmos? Is it not conceivable that there is still another dimension, a world beyond man's world; a world in which the question of an ultimate meaning of human suffering would find an answer?"

The tamarin's reaction to the cardboard eagle gives us further insight. For here we see the caring keeper inflicting suffering on the tamarin not for some extrinsic, separate goal, but for the very purpose of the suffering itself. The tamarin becomes a "better" (i.e. fitter) tamarin for the experience. If man does this for the good of the animal, is it not conceivable that G-d acts similarly for the good of man?

And if this is too difficult to grasp, it doesn't matter. This is the chok of the Torah.

Sources: Be'er Yosef Kisvei HaRamban, part II, Shaar HaGemul,


This essay is extracted from the ongoing publication of the Torah Universe series of books (available at, which explore how the lessons of the Torah are manifest in the natural world. Already published is the book "Seasons of Life," which shows how the Jewish year is reflected in the seasons and the life cycles of animals and plants. Awaiting publication is "Nature's Song," which explains the ancient Midrash of Perek Shirah that details the philosophical and ethical lessons manifest in the natural world; and "Creature Chorus," a collection of essays on Torah and the animal kingdom. The author, Nosson Slifkin, studies at the Mirrer Yeshivah and teaches at Ohr Somayach Institutions. He also leads Torah education projects at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo and at other zoos worldwide, described at, and can be reached at

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