The Song of Nature
by Esther Shuker
Chag Sameach Ladies.
Since Shavu'ot is the time when the Israelites were essentially created as a Nation under G-d upon being given the Torah on Har Sinai, I would like to talk about Perek Shira - The Song of Nature - which is also known as The Song of Creation.
I came across this beautiful song when looking for some benschers which were slightly different from the norm for my son Eyal's Bar Mitzvah 2 years ago. When I discovered it and learnt what it was about, I found it stunning because we are used to hearing that the world was created for us, for Man, but that is almost demeaning to the rest of nature. [If you wish to see what it is, there are copies here].
Perek Shira is at least 1800 years old - although it is not known exactly when it was composed - it is certainly older than the Mishna because Rebbe (Yehuda HaNassi) wrote the Mishna around the 1st/2nd Centuries B.C.E. and Rebbe is known to have said 'Whoever busies himself daily with Perek Shira merits life in the world to come together with many other blessings'. Some authorities even attribute it to King David.
A simple explanation of this Perek is that it is a list of 85 elements of the natural world - including the sky, the earth, plants, birds, animals and insects - from which we can learn a lesson in philosophy or ethics. Some of the verses are mysterious or cryptic and we are encouraged to study and understand them because each and every part of the universe has its task in Creation and all those parts pertain to man and help to elevate him.
Perek Shira has been described as the song that is sung every day by G-d's creations. Each part of creation is like a member of an orchestra playing his unique part. Man then has the role of conductor, producing the wonderful symphony out of the harmony of the individual parts.
Another description which I came across during my research is that all the good character traits which the Jew is commanded to acquire are already embodied in the various creatures which inhabit the globe. Rabbi Yochanan (student of Yehuda NaNassi) said that if the Torah had not been given, then we would have learnt about modesty from the cat, how not to thieve from the ant, not entering into forbidden relationships from the dove, and so forth. The Torah was given; thank G-d, so we can just learn about these things from it. There is an argument, however, that this is true when one is completely immersed in Torah, but for those of us who aren't, we can indeed learn from nature.
In Genesis, we are told that when G-d was about to create man, He said 'Let US make man'. How can it be plural when there is only one Creator? The answer is that G-d consulted the angels and the lesson we learn from this is that even when one is an authority or expert, we should still consult others. Since reading Perek Shira, however, I have encountered another possible explanation. I said above that all of Creation was brought about for the sake of man. By saying 'Let us make man', G-d was inviting the rest of Creation to join Him to contribute their best traits so that He can then imbue man with them.
Let me give you some examples of what we can learn from the animals and nature...
The first beautiful example is the spider. In Perek Shira is written 'Shmamit omeret: Halleluhu be zilzelei shamah, hallaluhu be zilzelei teruah'. The Spider says: Praise Him with clanging cymbals; praise Him with resonant trumpets. This is taken from Psalms 150:5. What does this mean? Everyone hates spiders, but they are everywhere, even in Kings' palaces. King David wondered why G-d created spiders but when he was fleeing from King Saul and was trapped in a cave with no way to escape, G-d dispatched spiders to weave webs at its entrance so that Saul became convinced that no one could have entered the cave.
There is a reason for everything and in realising it that is reason enough to praise G-d loudly and joyously.
Another example is the Horse - Sus: 'The horse says: Behold! Like the eyes of servants unto their master's hand, like the eyes of a maid unto her mistress's hand, so are our eyes unto Hashem our G-d until He favours us'. This comes from Psalm 123:2. The relationship between horse and man is one of humility and loyalty. The horse has always worked with man and man has always depended on the horse; between them there is mutual respect. The horse gives willingly of itself, knowing that its every need is being attended to - it is fed, watered, groomed. The same applies to us in our relationship with G-d - when we show Him loyalty, He provides our every need.
One slightly anomalous creature is the rat. His song from Tehillim 150, v 6 is Let every soul praise G-d, Hallelujah - Kol haNeshama tehalel ya, hallelujah. Every creature has some redeeming feature from which man can learn. Through Perek Shira we can see that each one of them sings to Hashem to thank Him for its unique attribute. The rat has nothing desirable in its character so what can we learn from him? We learn that life, no matter how worthless and how empty, is a great gift in and of itself.
When the rat's song mentions Neshama, chazal tell us that this can also be read as Neshima - breath. We thank Hashem for every breath He gives us because every breath is a gift.
Apart from animals, there are also songs from trees, rivers, the sun, the moon and so on...
In honour of my husband, and any other Iraqis present, we have the Tamar - the date palm - of which there were over 150 varieties in Iraq: 'A righteous man will flourish like a date palm; like a cedar in the Lebanon he will grow tall'. Once again this is taken from Psalms, 92 v13. I love this explanation: Nothing goes to waste with a date palm. Likewise with the Jewish people - no one is discarded as useless. The date palm has fruits which are eaten, soft palm branches which we use for the Lulav and hard branches which are used for the succah. The trunk grows straight upwards with no branches out to the side. So too, a tzaddik - righteous man - only focuses upwards to Shamayim. With his perfect belief and trust, he has no need to look sideways for answers.
Finally, I would like to mention the song of the night. Night symbolises faith in G-d. The sunset comes and although beautiful, we may be sad that the day is over. In the darkness we cannot see G-d's promises fulfilled, but our faith remains strong. We entrust our souls to Hashem every night and expect that they will be returned in the morning together with new horizons. [The passuk from Tehillim 92, v3 says Lehagid baBoker Chasdecha veEmunatecha baLeilot - keep your faith in the dark night because by the morning you will speak of Hashem's kindness.]
I hope that I have whetted your appetites a little to want to go and read Perek Shira more thoroughly than I have been able to describe here today and just to tempt you even more, it is said that whoever studies Perek Shira every day is destined for the World to Come and will be rescued from the evil inclination, from a harsh judgement and from any manner of destruction.
Need I say more???