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14 Shevat 5761 - Febuary 7, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network

Opinion & Comment
The Torah Universe: The Glorious Scattering of Light

by Rabbi Nosson Slifkin

In Perek Shirah, the ancient Midrash that lists the philosophical and ethical lessons to be learned from the natural world, one of the songs is that of the ananei hakovod, which literally means "the clouds of glory": "The clouds of glory are saying, `Also He burdens the thick cloud with an overflow; the thin cloud scatters its light' (Iyov 37:11)."

The "clouds of glory" refers to thin clouds that do not rain but instead have only the effect of scattering the sun's light, thereby forming beautiful and glorious patterns in the sky. Even if they only absorb a tiny amount of sunlight, scattering it evenly and thereby appearing to be white, they present a spectacular contrast to the blue skies; when they refract the light unevenly and produce striking shades of red and orange, they are all the more magnificent.

The commentaries on Perek Shirah explain that the lesson contained therein is as follows. The rain contained by the thick clouds, albeit a blessing, blocks out the sunlight. Rain is called geshem in the Torah, the source of the word gashmiyus, physicality. Rain represents the material blessings of this world. Immersion in the material pleasures of this world can obscure the light of the heavens. One can forget about the ultimate source of life and light -- Hashem.

Light, thin clouds represent the purging of gross materialism -- they allow the sunlight to shine through. More: by doing so, they become things of glorious beauty, sometimes producing the most beautiful aerial sight of all -- a rainbow. The song of these clouds is that Hashem "burdens the thick cloud with an overflow; the thin cloud scatters its light." If we purge ourselves of the grossness of this physical, material world, if we become as ethereal and as spiritual as the glorious delicate clouds, then we will merit diffracting the light of Hashem.

The thin water vapor of the skies not only enhances the sunlight; it also protects us from it. When we rub the sleep from our eyes in the morning, or yawn with exhaustion in the evening, it would be difficult if we also had to shield our eyes from the dangerous glare of the sun. Fortunately, at such times the sun is lower in the sky and therefore its light must pass through a far greater thickness of atmosphere to reach us. The atmosphere contains a large amount of water vapor, which scatters away most of the shortwave radiation, producing a hazy red sky. The result is that we are able to look at the filtered light without suffering harm.

There are spiritual forms of light, too, which possess too strong a glare and must be filtered. For example, when Hashem traveled with the Jewish people in the wilderness, He was clothed with a cloud. The essence of Hashem is too overwhelming for man to be exposed to it -- indeed, the Midrash states that when the nation heard Hashem speak at Sinai, their souls departed from them -- and Hashem must therefore conceal His radiance somewhat by use of a cloud.

Similarly, certain parts of the Torah are too lofty to be exposed fully to the masses. They are therefore clothed in riddles and parables, which cloud their true meaning. The result is that the unsophisticated are not confused by them, while scholars are able to penetrate the cloud and ascertain their true meaning.

The song of the thin clouds is performed by their scattering the light of the sun. Some light is too bright for us to stare at, and these clouds remind us to be grateful that Hashem conceals that which we are not ready to absorb. "Also He burdens the thick cloud with an overflow; the thin cloud scatters its light."

Rabbi Nosson Slifkin teaches at Yeshivas Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem. He is currently preparing an English elucidation of Perek Shirah entitled Nature's Song for publication.

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