In the Mishna, Hillel teaches, “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.” Here, “a man” denotes a caring, ethical person. When others are childish, act like a grownup. The phrase might also mean — when no one else is watching, when there are literally “no men” — you must still do the right thing.
Seeing something I have written in print always evokes the wish that I could snatch the words back, if only for a moment, to correct or change them. Manuscripts of notable novels and poems are almost always indecipherable squiggles, cross-outs, arrows, editing marks. Second, third and fourth thoughts are essential for clarity and elegance of expression. As the great Thomas Mann put it, “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
Have you ever climbed to the top of a tell? A tell is a pile of old civilizations, massed atop each other. Such hills mark the landscape of Israel, reminding us that civilization is less about building than about rebuilding.
The Talmud teaches, “Everything is in the hands of heaven except reverence for heaven (Berachot 33b).” In other words, there is much we do not choose in this world, but we do choose our posture toward what we are given. For a characteristically wise and elegant formulation of this, listen to the words of the superlative essayist, Joseph Epstein:
Could the formula for advancing American political life have been developed in the 16th century, in the small mystical community of Safed in Israel? There, the kabbalist Shlomo Alkabetz wrote the hymn “Lecha Dodi” sung each Friday night as we greet the Sabbath. The next to last verse begins: “Break out, right and left.”
Each morning a father enters our morning minyan with his two daughters. Before he drops them off at our school, he and his daughters put some money in the tzedakah box. One morning another worshiper, Norm Pell, approached me and reminded me of a beautiful midrash. When the women and men of Israel gave tzedakah, what did their children do? They watched, and learned what it is to help those in need.