1 Nissan 5764
Singing in the Rain
Rabbi Nosson Slifkin
Everyone’s talking about Perek Shirah these days. But a lot of people don’t seem to know what it’s about. I’d like to tell you a little bit about what Perek Shirah is – and about what it isn’t.
You can find Perek Shirah at the beginning of certain siddurim, such as the Miller “Beis Tefillah” siddur. Nobody really knows who wrote Perek Shirah. Some suggest that it was David HaMelech, many date it from the period of the Tanna’im, and some date it to around a thousand years ago. It lists just over eighty different elements of the natural world, including features of the sky and earth, plants, and creatures. Each is described as “saying” a different pasuk from the Torah. (You can download for free the text of Perek Shirah with a translation at www.zootorah.com/books/books.html.)
There are various understandings as to what Perek Shirah is all about. Some explain it as a mystical work, with the verses of each creature being the songs that their respective malachim recite in Heaven. But the simplest understanding is that it is a list of lessons for man. Each creature is telling us a message for our lives, a message that is contained in the verse that it “says.”
What catches peoples’ eyes about Perek Shirah is the prefatory text, which describes a variety of blessings that are bestowed upon people who recite Perek Shirah. It states that someone who recites Perek Shirah daily is assured of a portion in the World-to-Come, is saved from harm, and is granted all kinds of good things.
But here’s the catch. One can’t mindlessly zip through the text and expect Good Fortune to come knocking at the door. Perek Shirah is not a magic spell. It is teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah that change a person’s fate – things that involve genuine spiritual growth. If one wishes to reap the rewards of Perek Shirah, it must be understood and internalized as the powerful means of spiritual growth that it can be.
How does Perek Shirah help us accomplish spiritual growth? One way is as we’ve described – by enabling us to use different elements in nature as teachers of the Torah’s lessons. When we leave the environment of the Beis HaMedrash or seminary, when we leave our rebbeim behind, it can be hard to grow spiritually – or even to survive. By learning the lessons of Perek Shirah, and internalizing them every time we see a sparrow perching on a tree, or the raindrops splashing on the sidewalk, we can continue our spiritual growth in all environments.
Yet it is not just the individual elements of Perek Shirah that help us on a one-by-one basis. There is also a holistic perspective that we can take from it. Perek Shirah is a powerful presentation of the concept of ain od milvado – that Hashem’s Glory permeates the entire universe.
If you take a look at the overall structure of Perek Shirah, you’ll notice that it begins with the most obvious displays of Hashem’s grandeur. The first elements mentioned in Perek Shirah are the Heavens, followed by other spectacular features of the natural world – the wilderness, the seas, the stars and the rainstorms. Then come elements that, although still inspirational, are somewhat less grand – trees, plants, and birds. Following these come elements of the natural world that we would not think of as especially spiritual – wild animals and mundane farm animals. And finally, Perek Shirah lists creatures that we would see as spiritually repugnant – snakes and rats and all kinds of vermin. Yet all of these are shown to be teaching important spiritual lessons. Perek Shirah shows that from the spectacular Heavens to the lowly rat, all are part of Hashem’s creation and all can enhance man’s spiritual growth.
As we approach Pesach, we should remember that Shiras HaYam is also about this idea. When Moshe was complaining to Hashem about the continued suffering of the Bnei Yisrael in Egypt, he used the word “az” – “u’me’az ba’asi el Paraoh… heira le’am hazeh – and from when I came to Pharaoh… things have become worse for this nation…” The Midrash (Shemos Rabbah 23:3) states that Moshe said, “I sinned before You with az and I shall rectify this with az.” The same word “az,” is used in Az Yashir Moshe to express the recognition that everything which happened was an essential ingredient for the ultimate salvation. We have to see Hashem’s Hand in everything.
That’s why Perek Shirah, which lists so many different things that nature is singing to us, is called “A Chapter of Song” in the singular. It’s not a music festival of eighty different performers – it’s an orchestra. Just like a single instrument might not sound so remarkable, but contributes immeasurably to the entire orchestra, so too does everything in nature, even the lowest of creatures, play an important role in Hashem’s Creation. It is the single symphony that is created when man sees how every part of the natural world – yes, even rats – teach us an important lesson and are part of Hashem’s grandeur. If we internalize this concept, then we can truly elevate ourselves spiritually. And then we render ourselves truly worthy of Perek Shirah’s blessings.
Rabbi Slifkin’s book on Perek Shirah, entitled Nature’s Song, is available at Jewish bookstores and online at http://www.targum.com/store/Slifkin.html. Rabbi Slifkin is leading Torah Tours of the Bronx Zoo in March and May; for more details, see www.zootorah.com/Locations/newyork.html