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An Old Jewish Story, a Modern Elephant Sanctuary, and a Lifelong Lesson

An Old Jewish Story, a Modern Elephant Sanctuary, and a Lifelong Lesson

Large elephant standing in tall grass against a bright blue sky

One afternoon last January, I took a walk alone so that I could spend time with the elephants. I was in midst of my week-long volunteer adventure at Elephant Nature Park, a nature reserve outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand, that spans more than 300 acres and houses rescued Asian elephants.

Asian elephants are frequently used in the tourist industry, illegal logging, and in street begging. In order to get them to safely interact with humans, elephants are snatched from their mothers in infancy and subjected to an unnatural and abusive process called “crushing,” which renders them submissive to their human trainers. They then live lives of neglect and abuse – all for the profits of humans.

All the elephants at Elephant Nature Park have been rescued so they may live out the rest of their lives safely in the park. Elephant Nature Park offers day-long, overnight, and week-long volunteer opportunities. During my time at the park, my volunteer shifts included cleaning elephant enclosures, preparing elephant meals, and feeding the elephants. All of my shifts were with a single group of fellow week-long volunteers.

I paused for a moment during my walk so that I could observe the elephants as they chomped their umpteenth meal of the day. Their wrinkly, grey skin appeared otherworldly. Their scruffy tails swayed. Their mouths orbited around the bamboo and each swallow sounded like a colossal suction about to rip everything from the ground. In that moment, all that mattered to these elephants was the taste of their food as it traveled to their bellies.

I thought of a Jewish tale attributed to Rabbi Simcha Bunim, who lived in Poland in the 19th century.

Everyone ought to have two pockets, each holding a slip of paper, so that he or she can reach for one or another slip as the occasion demands. On one should be written: “I am but dust and ashes.” And on the other: “The world was created for me.”

On the one hand, the stresses that permeate my Los Angeles life may not be as large as they often feel. As I sit here in my living room writing, those elephants are probably still chomping their food. Regardless of the crises which overwhelm me, life continues according to its natural rhythm.

Watching these gentle giants made me realizes that humans do not have ultimate power over the world as we may sometimes assume. We share our space with animals and with nature. I felt grounded. I understood that I am just one piece of the larger, complex, and mysterious earth. I am but dust and ashes.

On the other hand, the week taught me about the power of human strength. I never imagined that I would gladly work with strangers to shovel poop, scrub water tanks, and peel hundreds of bananas. After each day at the park, I was dripping with sweat and wanted nothing more than to melt into a deep nap. I probably reeked of elephant poop. Still, I felt inspired and proud.

The members of my group encouraged and collaborated with each other. Our volunteer shifts provided plenty of time to talk and listen to each other’s stories. I learned about one woman who had recently lost her husband to pancreatic cancer and decided to take this trip with her daughter so they could build their relationship on new terms, without a husband and father. I met a woman from Long Island who lost her mother just two weeks before our stay at Elephant Nature Park and saw her time there as a way of honoring her mother. The resilience and collective strength of my group inspired me and made me realize the ability that each one of us holds to create the world we want to see.

Elephant Nature Park provided me with more than a unique adventure. It gave me a new lesson about the two slips of paper with which each one of us walks. One reminds us that we are but dust and ashes; our apparently insurmountable problems may not be as insurmountable as they appear. The other reminds us that the world was created for each one of us, and we have the power to shape it.

Weeks after my return from Elephant Nature Park, I still hold the memory of my walk with the elephants. I wonder how I can find the balance between my two slips of paper and use this balance to help me live in service of my unique purpose.

Liora Alban is a rabbinic and education student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. She also serves as the rabbinic intern at Leo Baeck Temple.

Liora Alban
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