MEANING IN MITZVOT by Rabbi Asher Meir
Many of us find the halakha very meaningful as an encompassing way of life, but still find it hard to perceive meaning in the details of our everyday practices. In order to help remedy this, each week we will discuss one familiar halakhic practice and try to demonstrate its beauty and meaning. The columns are based on thework “Meaning in Mitzvot”, which is serialized on the OU-sponsored website "Virtual Beit Midrash", www.vbm-torah.org.
Among the many blessings said on natural phenomenon is a special blessing on the rainbow. This blessing, which acknowledges that HaShem “remembers the covenant”, recognizes the rainbow not only as a wonder of nature but also as a sign of G-d’s covenant with Noah - a covenant which is really at the root of human existence! So it is surprising that the halakha warns us not to gaze excessively at the rainbow. (Chagigah 16, SA OC 229:1, KSA 60:4.)
Here is one way of understanding this paradox: When we “see” a rainbow, what we are really seeing is the sun as its light is refracted through a very fine and subtle cloud. Now a cloud’s normal effect is to BLOCK the sun’s rays so that we can not see the sun at all. But if the cloud is fine enough, the opposite takes place:Far from blocking the sun’s rays, this fine mist REVEALS to us their true nature. Normally, we see sunlight as a simple white color, but the rainbow reveals to us that in fact the sun’s rays comprise a profusion of scintillating colors - in fact, a rainbow!
We can view this as a metaphor for our material existence. Unfortunately, the usual effect of involvement in material affairs is to block G-d’s spirit. Of course even the densest clouds seldom block out all sunlight - a stormy day is not dark as night. Likewise, even a person who is quite sunken in worldly affairs stillapprehends a spiritual aspect to things. Such a person is not completely benighted, and some G-dliness still illuminates his world. However, he is unable to identify the source of this illumination.
Conversely, when we completely free ourselves of our attachment to matter, when we return to the World of Truth, then nothing dims our perception of the source of spiritual enlightenment. There is a cloudless sky and we see the blinding light of Divine Judgment.
However, there is an intermediate level. The righteous person maintains a refined involvement with this world. Such a person resembles the mist through which the rainbow shines. The tzaddik demonstrates that only through measured involvement in this world can we perceive the dazzling spectrum of colors in HaShem’s rainbow.
This is the covenant that HaShem made with Noach and with mankind. The Torah introduces Noach as a tzaddik who walked with G-d (Bereshit 6:9). Through such a person, the material world becomes a lens for revealing G-d’s splendor - not a fog for occluding His enlightenment. Therefore, a world founded by Noach would neverneed to be destroyed.
What about the prohibition of gazing at the rainbow? We have pointed out that looking at the rainbow is really a way of seeing the sun. However, if we focus our gaze on the rainbow itself, then we have lost sight of the sun and are looking at the cloud! Instead of looking through the mist, we're looking at it!
The message is that while we are able to perceive wonderful Divine currents in the life of this world if we live a life of moderation and righteousness, we must never make the mistake of thinking that such splendor actually originates in the material world itself. This is like mistaking the rainbow for an effulgence originatingin the cloud itself! (We could identify this with the heresy of pantheism.) We are allowed and even commanded to see the world, and we even bless on it - as long as we are able to see through its deceptions.
(Based on Zohar Noach I:71b.)
Rabbi Asher Meir is in the process of writing a monumental companion to Kitzur Shulchan Aruch which beautifully presents the meanings in our mitzvot and halacha. Hopefully, Rabbi Meir - who have givien a series on Business Halacha - will be giving a weekly shiur at the Israel Center in the near future. Watch for announcements.