September 18, 2019

The Reality of Desert Life

Draped in a deep, earthen-red shukah, adorned with circles of brightly beaded necklaces and head-to-toe with body paint made from ochre and sheep fat, the Masai warrior keeps a silent vigil in the midst of the relentless equatorial heat of East Africa. His life is a mission from his god, Ngai, to protect and care for his herd of cattle and the earth itself.

The Masai live in small, tightly circled villages smack in the midst of the African plains, exposed and vulnerable to the lions, cheetahs, jackals and other predatory animals that roam that forbidding landscape at will. The village has perhaps 50 small huts; the straw woven by the women and then covered in dung and mud by the men. It is built in a tight circle to serve as safe haven for both humans and cattle during the long and threatening nights.

A few days ago, my wife Didi and I were standing in the midst of the Masai in just such a village in Kenya at the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro. As we have our Sinai, the Masai have Kilimanjaro — for it is this towering mountain, rising some 19,000 feet above the plain that the Masai believe to be the home of the gods and the source of the commandments for their way of life. The Masai feed entirely off the blood, milk and meat of their cattle; they believe that god forbids any cultivation of the earth. They say the earth is sacred and no one should be so irreverent as to scar it with tools or deface its natural beauty.

As usual, Didi ended up surrounded by children who laughed and giggled in amazement as she entertained them with songs made up of their tongue-twisting names from their native language. It was at the same moment heartwarming and heart-wrenching.

Heartwarming, for perhaps the most beautiful music in the world is that universal sound of children’s laughter that accompanied their eyes wide with wonder as she gave them their own pictures taken with her pocket Polaroid.

Heart-wrenching to feel helpless knowing that even now in the 21st century, these children with smiling faces oblivious to the constant crawling flies and dirt, were facing lives filled with preventable childhood death and diseases and an average life expectancy in the mid-40’s.

They live today as they have lived for hundreds of years, and as seminomads have lived throughout Africa and the Middle East for thousands of years. And I recognized faint echoes of our own ancient Biblical past in their lives.

In Metzorah, the Torah speaks of what the priests and people are supposed to do when a disease is discovered in one of the houses in the camp. The procedures that are outlined in this week’s portion are the result of a natural fear of contamination from one person to another, and one house to the next. In Leviticus 14:45, we are told that when there is a serious disease infecting an entire house, we simply demolish the house itself stone-by-stone, and then rebuild it from scratch.

It startled me into recognizing the reality of desert life when the Masai told me that whenever they discover a serious disease in their village, they destroy the village, move to a new location and simply build a new village from scratch.

Spending a week with the Masai was like going back to an ancient world. It reminded me that we have more in common with the primitive terrors of our ancient ancestors than we are eager to admit. Even in the 21st century, we still share the same dreams and needs and fears that have driven human beings for all time. So when the Masai warriors held their hand out for mine, I took it, and smiled.

Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D. is senior rabbi of Kehillat Israel, the Reconstructionist congregation of Pacific Palisades.