As my family and I were driving down the Palisades Parkway in New Jersey, we marveled at the gorgeous autumn leaves along the way. The Parkway is a wonderful place to go in the fall—there is a thick blanket of trees lining both sides of the road, and when the leaves change colors, it becomes a brilliant rainbow of lush greens and flaming reds, oranges and yellows. As I enjoyed the beauty of G‑d’s creation, a strange thought struck me—after the leaves change, they will fall off the trees. This vibrant display of nature only occurs when the leaves are dying!

Leaves change colors in the fall because the days are getting shorter, so there is not enough sunlight for the leaves to carry out photosynthesis. Thus, the leaves lose their nourishment, and the photosynthesis-performing chlorophyll slowly disappears.

Why should such beauty result from decomposition? The chlorophyll usually produces nourishment for the tree and gives the leaves a green appearance. When the chlorophyll and the green color disappear, other colors, which were actually latent in the leaves all along, become visible. The other colors result from the presence of glucose, wastes, and other materials. Eventually, the photosynthesis completely stops and the leaves fall off the trees, leaving us with a “dead”-looking winter.

But autumn leaves are not the only phenomenon where beauty results from a breakdown in nature. White light passing through a prism or droplets of water creates a rainbow, as the light is broken up into its composite colors of varying wavelengths.

This is why sunrises and sunsets are so beautiful. Usually, the sun’s white light passes through the atmosphere, and the shortest wavelengths—the blue ones—refract and scatter in the sky, creating the appearance that the sky is blue. During sunrise and sunset, however, the sun’s rays are on a less direct angle from the earth and travel further. Then, the longest wavelengths scatter as well. This makes those colors (red and yellow) visible in the sky as well.

Why should such beauty result from decomposition? Isn’t beauty something positive we would normally associate with completeness and vibrancy? What is the message we are to take from this paradox of nature?

In the Zohar, the fundamental text of Jewish mysticism, it is stated that a righteous person’s soul is lofty in his lifetime, but is even more so as he is dying. Then he is as close as a living human can be to the World of Souls. Because his physical body is breaking down, deeper levels of spirituality can become revealed.

Perhaps this is what occurs during the autumn or a sunset. For a temporary period of time, G‑d gives us a peek into the complexity that goes into His creation. He breaks apart the façade of green trees and white light to show us that He has hidden more under the surface, that there is in fact greater, more beautiful depth to Him and His world than we could ever imagine.

This might be the meaning behind the rainbow as the symbol of G‑d’s covenant with Noah. Genesis 6:11–12 uses the term “destruction” three times to describe the pre-flood state of the world, indicating that it suffered a degeneration of sorts. The commentators specify that it was a moral degeneration, defining the term chamas, which the Torah says was the primary sin of the time (ibid. 6:11), as either a breakdown in sexual boundaries or in the foundational civic matter of stealing. Either way, people had lost sight of the orderliness and holiness of a life rooted in the One G‑d. Instead, they pursued their own whims.

After the flood, G‑d made a covenant with Noah, promising not to send another flood. The sign of this covenant is the rainbow, a symbol that reminds the world not to make the same mistake as the generation of the flood: just as the spectrum of colors is only visible if the unified white light continues to pass through the droplet of water, so too people may pursue life in all its variety, but it is only lasting if it is rooted in G‑d. This is how the Breslover Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum explains the rainbow: a symbol of the various powers of creation all tied to the unified “white light” of G‑d.

Perhaps this is also the reason behind another literary irregularity present in the verses about the rainbow: five times, G‑d mentions that this rainbow will be visible in a cloud. Why is this necessary to say, and why so many times?

There is greater, more beautiful depth to Him and His world than we could ever imagineThe cloud is sometimes a symbol of G‑d, such as the Clouds of Glory that signified G‑d’s guidance and presence in the desert (Exodus 13:21). Maybe by stressing the attachment of the rainbow to a cloud, G‑d is further highlighting the message that multifaceted physicality must always be viewed as tied to the unity of G‑d.

Maybe the message of autumn is the reminder that there is tremendous beauty G‑d wants us to enjoy in this physical world. But without recognizing that He is the source behind it, without that connection to Him, the physical world is dead. When we do recognize Him, however, the world can be quite a beautiful place.