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The Circle of Life

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin

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
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.

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