Essayist Charles Lamb wrote that the world is divided between those who borrow and those who lend. Essayist Max Beerbohm divides the world into hosts and guests. Essayist Robert Benchley explains that there really are two types of people: those who insist upon dividing the world into two types, and those who do not.
After Rabbi Milton Steinberg recovered following his heart attack he walked out into the bright midday sun. He thought, “How precious — how careless.” Life is so precious and we are so careless with it. How can we pay so little heed when we know that everything cherished must end? Perhaps we fear that if we care too much, the losses of life will be unbearable.
We are awash with insight. There is no shortage of books, pundits, philosophers, clergy, psychologists and psychiatrists, ethicists and counselors who offer the distilled wisdom of the ages. How much easier to seek wisdom than it is to change!
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: