Professor Louis Ginzberg was the greatest scholar of rabbinic Midrash in his day, with a vast range of learning in many languages. My father told me that once, at a reception at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where Ginzberg taught, a woman approached him and in the course of discussion, began arguing with him about a point in Midrash. After a long, fruitless argument, Ginzberg said, “Why don’t we check the ‘Jewish Encyclopedia’ — would you accept that as an authority?” The woman agreed.
Sending his son Adam some stamps, Saul Bellow wrote in the accompanying note, “Countries sometimes disappear leaving nothing behind but postage stamps.” Anyone who has studied history must indeed be mystified at what endures — the shopping lists of ancient Sumer or obscure graffiti scratched on a prehistoric cave. As in Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” what we think will survive often disappears with barely a trace.
A word for a profoundly Jewish but often disrespected profession: God bless funeral directors.
As a rabbi, I have marveled for many years at the skill and care of funeral directors. My father, a rabbi in Philadelphia, would often recount how his friend, Joseph Levine, would care for those who were bereaved and frightened, and gently guide them. I have seen the same care repeatedly in my own years conducting funerals and meeting with families who had suffered a loss. Death is the most sensitive time; when a funeral director is unkind, the results are devastating. But day after day, a mortuary worker must speak with families whom he or she does not know, and be warm without being cloying, caring without presuming too much, discuss financial arrangements at a time when the family can barely add two and two.
Rabbi Moshe Taub pointed out to me that of the 85 sentences in the Book of Ruth, all but eight begin with “and.” Parataxis is the name scholars give to the practice of recounting a string of happenings without explanation or causality. E.M. Forster wrote, “The king died and then the queen died,’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief,’ is a plot.” Children tell plotless, paratactic stories: “And he said. And I said. And then...”
The Talmud teaches us (Berachot, 21a) that the requirement to say a blessing after a meal comes from a verse in the Torah (Deuteronomy 8:10), and to recite it before the meal comes from a logical imperative. But the reverse is true with Torah study; the source for reciting a blessing before is from a verse (Deut. 32:3).
Virgil’s Dido declares, “I have known sorrow — and learned to help the sad.” In that simple declaration is much of the secret of human wisdom. Our own experience should move through an internal sifting process of learning and growth, and school us into a means for helping others.
People sometimes say that they have no regrets. I confess I am at a loss to understand the statement.
All of us go through life learning as we go along, as if we were taking piano lessons, but our practices too are in public. As a result, we hit lots of wrong notes and make many, many mistakes. We learn from them, it is true. Too often, since people learn from their mistakes, they think there is no reason to regret them.