Thursday, January 19, 2012

What's Beautiful But Not for Gazing At?

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As I was driving to Bet El on a recent sunny/rainy afternoon, a beautiful rainbow burst forth from the clouds and its arc descended beyond a hill landing right where my house is located in Bet El.

A rainbow descending on Bet El

I got out of my car, opened the prayer book in my Iphone and recited the Hebrew blessing for seeing a rainbow. I sped home to claim the pot of gold waiting for me at the end of the rainbow, only to find that a neighbor must have gotten to it first.

But something bothers me. Despite the beauty and splendor of the rainbow, Jewish sources instruct us not to gaze at it. It's a law similar to seeing a gorgeous woman: Jewish law forbids us to gaze at her because of the sexual currents that might be aroused in us, but if one sees a phenomenally attractive woman, he can make a blessing to G-d thanking Him for creating such beauty (consult with a Rabbi for the exact circumstances under which the blessing is made).

But why can't we gaze at a rainbow? It's so beautiful, and doesn't awaken within us any base desires!

I found a few explanations, the best of which was on the site. Based on a passage in the Zohar (kabbalistic work), Rabbi Asher Meir explains that the light of the sun represents spiritual blessing in the world. The more that a person sinks into pursuit of materialism, he increases the dark clouds which block spirituality from his life.

The ideal Jewish life is one based primarily of spiritual pursuit, but not by any means a negation of the material world. Rather, with just a smattering of the physical - similar to mist in the sky, the light of Hashem will illuminate a person's existence in all of its glory, color and splendor - parallel to the rainbow.

So why not gaze at this beautiful rainbow? Answer: The mist represents the moderate portion of worldly affairs that a righteous person endeavors himself in. If a person focuses on the rainbow, he is, in effect, focusing on the mist, the material and risks losing sight of the divine source of the light.

So by aspiring to reach the Divine - the source of all light, our lives will be filled more and more with a colorful glow. But we must keep our focus on spirituality and not pause for more than a brief gaze at the material.

See Rabbi Asher Meir's full explanation.

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