The Peacock’s Tale

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick


For years I had a busy writing and editing service. Among the books, articles, speeches, and what-have-you that I edited, there were usually two or three master’s or doctoral theses every year. And I learned a great deal from them. One thesis that I found particularly spiritually attractive concerned equine therapy, something that has since proven very successful, especially with teenagers, but at that time it was still regarded with considerable skepticism, particularly by this graduate student’s professor. The student ended up dedicating her remarkable thesis to her horse and to me. The prof didn’t get a mention.

One of the interesting things I learned from her thesis was that in animal life there are two categories: predators and prey. Apparently, predators have eyes placed to look straight in front of them, so that they can spot prey quickly. Prey, on the other hand have eyes placed on the side of their heads so that they can see the predators coming more easily and run away. Prey always have a nervous quality, a marked sensitivity to their surroundings.


And so now I come to the peacock’s tail. I’ve been thinking about that spunky peacock and his protective tail feathers ever since, after serving as Guest Staff Rabbi on a cruise ship, I returned from Central America (which, to my surprise, is actually in North America) to sunny California, safe and sound. Once our ship completed its nine-hour trip through the historic Panama Canal, moving into open waters, we had been under the protection of the U.S. coastguard (manning mounted guns), with a sister cruise ship closely following. I thought briefly about pirates, terrorists, then banished these fears. Together we were a BIG SHAPE – spread out like a preening peacock’s tail feathers — as we traveled, and I, for one, was glad to proceed in this close, sea-borne caravan until we reached Columbia (which is in South America).

Over the years I have seen peacocks in various places, zoos mostly, or animal parks that let them roam to a degree. But never one like this peacock. I spotted him in the National Aviary Park in Cartagena among all the other beautiful birds of many colors. I have since learned that the peacock was originally an East Indian bird, but I cannot imagine a bird’s colors being more vibrant, his tail feathers so long anywhere else but in Cartagena. As they shone in the sun, the sight was enough to make you “get religion,” to stir your wonder of the Cosmos and its creator.

This peacock roamed around freely within the area covered by the Columbian Aviary’s high, gauzy ceiling, looking humans in the eyes curiously, without fear, having learned already that at least in this protected setting, the people making contact with him were not a danger to him. Even though peacocks can bite quite fiercely if they sense they will be harmed, even though this peacock’s eyes were on the side of the head, he knew he was not at risk here. It was a safe space. My green eyes and his black eyes continued a silent conversation for quite a while, as he cocked his head from side to side, assessing me. Is this a good human being?

Then the next day the ship transporting me along with 2,000 other passengers and 1,000 crew, stopped in Costa Rica. We had returned to North America! Here those of us who chose to explore a mangrove swamp – similar swamps may be found where a river meets the sea — boarded a small boat. We travelled slowly through the narrow, brownish, swampy waters. On the shores on either side of the mangrove swamp, we could spot – often with difficulty because they were so well camouflaged — some of the bird species that we had seen in the Columbian aviary. But here in Costa Rica, they were in their natural setting. So were very scary crocodiles, predators who waited, in the swamp, just their eyes and nostrils peering above the water, for foolish prey to come too close. (Actually, crocs can run pretty fast on land – not a good idea to encounter them there either!)

And then I spotted the peacock on the shore. Not the same peacock that I had seen in Columbia, of course, but equally beautiful, strutting around with his tail feathers glowing with irridescent colors, shining in the sun. Like the peacock I saw in Costa Rica, he evoked a sense of wonder in me, a connection to Creation. How could a living creature on the shore of a swamp be so beautiful? Meanwhile his six peacock wives, dowdy brown and white hens, without long tail feathers gifted by an artistic God, fed on the plant life. One might say charitably that they were dressed modestly.

Once the gorgeous peacock spotted the crocodile, he went into defense mode. How? He didn’t run; he didn’t freeze. He stood his ground. He approached the shore as closely as he dared, turned around, and raised his tail feathers. Generally speaking, when a peacock spreads his tail feathers, a casual observer may think that he is preening. But when a peacock turns around and spreads his tail feathers in defense, his backside is a dowdy brown and white, just like the hens that he is protecting – and, come to think of it, close to the color of that low-lying crocodile. Not only are these dull feathers a camouflage, but spread out like that as the peacock presents his behind to the enemy, they make a REALLY BIG SHAPE. Enough to keep that predator croc in the water. The croc doesn’t want to mess with that scary shape, even though, when you take a second look, it’s balanced on spindly, prey-like, peacock legs.

* * *

What’s really scary, it seems to me, whether it’s a croc in a mangrove swamp or a human being in our more usual habitats, is that so often it’s hard to tell the predator from the prey. After all, human beings have eyes on the front of their faces, not the sides.

Can prey become predators? Or vice versa. Can human predators be disguised by the direction of their eyes? What if they hide their intentions with sunglasses? Does concern for others – loving-kindness, connectedness – infuse their vision, change that direction? Or does too much concern have the propensity to turn us, defenseless, into unwitting prey? In 2017, how do we find a balance between predator and prey, both at home and in distant lands?