By Dena Schusterman
We recently took our children to the Wild Animal Safari in Pine Mountain. We rented one of the black-and-white, zebra-striped vans, and we piled ourselves and our friends into the van for an hour of Georgia safari adventure.
We saw bulls, bison, zebras, goats, deer, wild pigs, giraffes and camels. It was no Kruger National Park, as we are in the South of the United States, not Africa.
As we drove along, there were some shrieks as the bulls stuck their huge tongues into the van, as well as giggles as the children watched the animals vying for space closest to our vehicle.
As the animals approached for the food we were offering, we discussed which animals were kosher and how we could tell. The split hooves were obvious, but even though we were depositing food straight into bulls’ mouths, we still couldn’t tell whether they were chewing their cud as they ate.
We had just read about our foremother Rivka and her kindness of bringing water to Eliezer and the camels in the Torah, so seeing the camels was timely and relevant. After our leisurely and somewhat slobbery ride through the safari, we continued by foot into the little zoo on the grounds.
This zoo is atypical. It has ligers (a lion-tiger mix), dingoes, and some other motley, uncommon animals.
As we entered, there was a large area for the prized peacock herd. There was a mixture of male and female birds with signs indicating that although they are behind a gate, they can jump out, so beware. We stood in front of the peacock pen when two of the males spread their wings — it was a sight to behold.
Our almost-5-year-old twins were in utter awe.
We all began to discuss these glorious birds and their colors — peacock blue and yellow and silver — and how majestic they appear. We were contrasting the peacock feathers with the ostrich we just saw on the safari — how both types of feathers were highly valued for clothing and headwear once upon a time, but how much more beautiful the peacock feathers look on the bird.
We spent a lot of time marveling at the beauty before us. And then suddenly one male bird turned around.
My daughter burst out, “But look: He has an ugly side!”
She quickly turned a light pink, unsure of what she just said, but she was right: An ugly side was there indeed.
As the bird turned to go about his business, to mate or to eat or to socialize, we were left with what lies behind all his splendor and glory: a mangy mass of feathers, a display of grayish plume and an exposed bottom side.
So we got to talking about how two people could be standing on two sides and discussing the exact same thing, and one would describe beauty while the other described the opposite of that, and both people would be right.
How fortuitous that my children saw this example right there in front of them. We took this a step further and analyzed how it was a Jewish value to try to look for the good in something or someone and perhaps dismiss the ugly side, in light of the beauty or the goodness.
Yes, this is a lesson we mostly want our children to absorb. But it also made me think to myself that there is sometimes another lesson as well. Surely at such a young age they don’t need this information yet, but the older children will either absorb it for themselves or learn it, as I have, through life experience.
That lesson: Sometimes the beautiful side is actually not very beautiful at all, or the beauty is irrelevant in light of the ugly side.
In fact, my sister lives in Coconut Grove in Miami and has peacocks roaming her property endlessly. To her, these large birds are a huge nuisance; they fall into the same category as squirrels and mice.
It is hard for her to see beauty in their impressive plumage when they are persistent pests. They dig up her garden, cause traffic jams, overcrowd the parking spot in her driveway and scare away the children while they play outdoors.
Predictably, they also leave significant droppings all over her yard.
She can see the feathers fanned out and the beautiful colors, but quickly the ugly side whips around to face her as the bird goes after its mate, food or friends, leaving behind its damage.
At one point a guest bought her a set of peacock dishes, telling her how beautiful these birds are and how appropriate a gift she envisioned for Coconut Grove dwellers. My sister smiled graciously and said, “You have no idea.”
I don’t think she could even bear to keep the gift.
We hope for life to be simple and straightforward for ourselves and especially for our children.
We hope for easy decisions — that when we see character traits in our fellow that we do not like, we can still manage to focus on the good. But when someone’s ugly side is manifest in such a way that there is no longer any beauty to behold, we should recognize this for what it is as well.
We do not need to feel ashamed for knowing this truth and for dealing with it in a way that makes our lives safe and productive. In other words, if someone is walking around strutting his stuff, acting all beautiful, but in the meantime wreaking havoc on your life, it’s OK to acknowledge that you don’t see the beauty and that this “bird” better move off your property.
I do not live with the peacock, so I stand in naive admiration of its beauty. But I also understand why my sister has rejected any part of that goodness. And there perhaps we have one last lesson for another walk in the zoo or park: “Do not judge a man/woman until you have walked a mile in his/her shoes.”