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The Circle of Life

The Circle of Life

An ancient text reveals how everything in the natural world is a tapestry of spiritual lessons for life.


Where do all the dead birds go? There are thousands upon thousands of birds all around us, in the city no less than in the countryside. Why don't we see any dead ones?

One can answer that birds don't usually drop dead on the wing; they sicken first, and are likely to die in their nesting or sleeping place. Still, it seems as though there ought to be a lot more bird carcasses lying around than there actually are.

Move into the wilds, and the question becomes even more powerful. Take the African savanna, for example. It is home to everything from egrets to elephants. Forest cover is minimal; the habitat is mostly open ground. There ought to be thousands of animal carcasses and skeletons lying around. Where on earth do all the dead animals go?

The answer is alluded to in Perek Shirah. Perek Shirah, literally "A Chapter Of Song," is an ancient text that is at least two thousand years old; some commentaries even attribute its authorship to King David! It takes the form of a list of eighty-four elements of the natural world, including elements of the sky and of the earth, plants, birds, animals, and insects, attaching a verse from the Torah to each.

The concept behind Perek Shirah is that everything in the natural world teaches us a lesson in philosophy or ethics, and the verse gives a clue as to what that lesson is. The result is the "song" of the natural world, the tapestry of spiritual lessons for life that the natural world is telling us. Perek Shirah, a work of tremendous historic value, is itself extremely mysterious and cryptic. However, various commentaries have been written on it over the last five hundred years, which give an insight into what the verse is telling us to learn from the creature.

For example, in addition to a list of individual animals, there is also a mention of the wild animals in general. In this case, their song is not a verse, but rather a quote from the Talmud: "The wild animals are saying, 'Blessed is the One Who is good and bestows good' (Talmud, Berachot 48a)." In order to understand the meaning behind this, let us return to the question of where the dead animals go.

A field scientist in Africa came across the carcass of an elephant that had just died and kept a diary of the ensuing events. First on the scene were the larger scavengers: jackals, vultures, and hyenas that possess a unique ability to crunch and digest bones. Then came the smaller carrion-eaters, including insects. The excrement from the scavengers and the detritus from their endless feeding fertilized the soil beneath and around the carcass. This caused vegetation to grow and draw a veil over the final residue; instead of the body being lowered into the ground, the ground rose over the body. It took only two weeks for the carcass to disappear through this natural burial - and this was an elephant, largest of animals. With all other creatures, it would require far less time.

Rome committed the final, horrible outrage: they refused to allow the survivors to bury the dead.

The fourth blessing in Birchat HaMazon, Grace after Meals, is entitled Hatov Vehameitiv, "Who is good and bestows good," and has its roots in events of two thousand years ago. The city of Betar was the pride of the Jewish nation. Tens of thousands strong, it boasted men of stature, dedicated to the service of God. But then the Roman Empire launched its attack against Israel. Rome managed to conquer even the stronghold of Betar, and ruthlessly massacred its inhabitants. And then Rome committed the final, horrible outrage: they refused to allow the survivors to bury the dead. The thousands of corpses lay where they fell, denied honor even in death.

Rabbi Gamliel and his court in Yavneh began several days of fasting. They prayed that this terrible disgrace should end, and eventually their prayers were answered: they received permission to bury the dead.

"On the day that the slain of Betar were given over for burial, they instituted the blessing of 'Who is good and bestows good'; [God] is good in that He did not allow the bodies to decompose, and bestows good in that the bodies were given over for burial." (Talmud, Berachot 48a)

Life has dignity, and God ensures that this dignity is not lost in death. This same consideration extends to wild animals as well as to the victims of Betar. God has created a system to ensure that the bodies of wild animals do not suffer the disgrace of remaining on the ground.

The song of the wild animals is the same as that sung over the victims of Betar. It is an acknowledgment of God's kindness in ensuring that the dignity of life is not lost in death; "Blessed is the One Who is good and bestows good."

This essay is adapted from Nature's Song by Rabbi Nosson Slifkin. Nature's Song is the first English explanation of Perek Shirah. It makes use of rare ancient commentaries on Perek Shirah, as well as contemporary insights from the fields of meteorology, zoology and so on.

March 28, 2005

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Visitor Comments: 1

(1) Lee Tracy, May 5, 2005 12:00 AM

Beautiful teaching

The Baal Shem Tov used to love the outdoors and found G-d in the forest. It's important to remember this when we get tempted to keep ourselves inside all day, even if we are huddled over torah and good stuff like that. G-d is outside in the "natural" world and teaches us there as well as through Torah.

Rabbi Slifkin shows us how things that others may dismiss as merely mundane and "natural" are actually infused with deep meaning and sacredness. Too often, we see religious people dismiss science and science people dismiss religion. Too few people take the science and show how it's imbued with G-d. The idea that the universe is put together so carefully, that one of the reasons that animals eat each other is to preserve their dignity, is profound and beautiful. It reminds me of the frog and King David (a story you probably use in your book!), where the frog tells David that he performs a great mitzvah -- somewhere out there is a hungry animal, and the frog will sacrifice its life to feed it.

This idea is shared by native American tradition -- the animals that are hunted by them are not hapless victims, but knowing participants, willingly allowing themselves to be slaughtered in order to provide nourishment.

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