The Circle of Life

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.

Thus, for example, as well as individual animals being listed, 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' (Berachos 48a)." In order to understand the meaning behind this, we must ask some questions about the natural world.

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. Where on earth do all 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 bone-crunching hyenas. 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.

The fourth blessing in Birchas Ha-Mazon, 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.

Rabban 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, Berachos 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."

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