A man was circling an office building, late for a meeting that could change his life. But he could not find a place to park. He said “God, if you get me a parking place I promise I will keep kosher, I will be better to my wife and children, I will attend services on Shabbat, I will...” Just at that moment, a spot opened right in front of the building.
Perek Shira, “chapter of song,” is a beautiful Midrash. Attaching an appropriate verse to the elements of Creation, it recounts how everything in the world sings: the lion sings, and the stars, and the trees. The medieval Christian spiritualist Thomas à Kempis beautifully wrote: “If you cannot sing like the nightingale and the lark, then sing like the crows and the frog, which sing as God meant them to.” This is the lesson of Perek Shira — all of Creation bears a song.
The documentary “Precious Life” tells of Israeli Dr. Roz Somech’s saving the life of an infant whose mother then insists she would be proud if the boy grew up to be a suicide bomber. It put me in mind of what the English historian Thomas Macaulay called the finest sentence ever written.
It is found in Julius Caesar’s answer to Cicero. Cicero wrote to express thanks for the compassion the conqueror displayed toward political adversaries who fell into his power at the surrender of Corfinium. The sentence Macaulay so admired reads:
Final blessings play an important part in the Torah. At the conclusion of Genesis, Jacob offers his words to his children — each of the future tribes of Israel. Moses offers his final blessings to Israel at the conclusion of Deuteronomy. When the Torah tells us that Moses could no longer, at the end of his life, “go in and go out” (Deut. 31), one lovely interpretation holds that he went to the tent of each individual Israelite family and said goodbye.
Anger, say the Sages, is like a bubbling pot; you cannot tell where it will spill or whom it will scald. Anger knots the stomach, heats the head and forces cruel words from our mouths. When our anger calms we cannot always believe what we have done in moments of rage.
In his book “Representative Men,” Ralph Waldo Emerson tells a helpful story about Napoleon: He directed his one-time secretary, Bourrienne, to leave all letters unopened for three weeks, and then “observed with satisfaction how large a part of the correspondence had thus disposed of itself, and no longer required an answer.”
As someone who steadily answers e-mails lest the queue become unbearably long, I wonder at the steely self-discipline required to leave that mail unanswered. If Napoleon could manage that, world conquest was probably a trifle.
A professor, said Bergen Evans, is one who speaks in other people’s sleep. Anyone who has taught knows how difficult it is to keep the attention of students. Perhaps we can take some comfort in the report of the Midrash that Rabbi Akiva once noticed his students were falling asleep in his class. If one can fall asleep on Rabbi Akiva, who are we to complain?
Great events can arise from small differences. In “Les Miserables,” Victor Hugo writes of the battle of Waterloo: “If it had not rained on the night of the 17th and 18th of June, 1815, the future of Europe would have been changed.”
No breakthrough in 20th-century medicine was driven more by serendipity than the discovery of penicillin. The first penicillin spore was carried by a random London wind through an open window and landed in one of Alexander Fleming’s petri dishes. Fleming recognized the significance of this breeze-borne visitor, but it has been said that penicillin discovered him rather than the other way around.
When philosopher Bertrand Russell was imprisoned for pacificism, the prison warden asked him, “What do you do for a living then?” Russell answered. “I think.” “Well then,” asked the warden with some asperity, “do you think you could clean these toilets?”