Parshat Noach: Genesis 6:9-11:32; Isaiah 54:1-55:5.
When was the last time you saw a rainbow?
Not too long ago, I saw a beautiful rainbow as I was walking out of temple after a long, exhausting, rainy, dreary day. Seeing that rainbow lifted my spirits, giving me a little boost as I slowed my steps to the car, relishing the beautiful rainbow in the sky.
I know that rainbows are meteorological phenomena that are caused by reflection, refraction and dispersion of light in water droplets. I learned that much when I was a child, needing to do a report for an elementary school science class. But despite knowing that there is science behind the appearance of a rainbow, I still love the beauty of how this spectrum of light appears in the sky, the seeming mystery of when a rainbow will show up and the delight that it causes.
In fact, rainbows have such a special spiritual and religious significance that Judaism teaches us to stop when we see a rainbow, to take a moment and say a blessing. Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech haolam, zocher ha’brit, v’neeman bi’vrito, v’kayam ma-amaro — We praise You, Eternal God, Sovereign of the universe, who remembers the covenant, is faithful to God’s covenant and keeps God’s promise.
The message of this blessing is taught to us through this week’s Torah portion, which reminds us that the purpose of a rainbow is to do more than just look up to the sky and smile. Rainbows also serve as reminders of God’s covenant with Noah.
We teach our children about the animals marching two by two. We discuss what it means that Noah was a righteous man in his generation. We wrestle with a God who was so angry at how people were behaving that He decided to destroy the entire world. And then we learn that the rainbow is God’s promise, God’s brit with Noah, that never again will the world be destroyed by flood.
So why the rainbow as a symbol of this covenant? Our ancient commentators had some ideas.
The medieval commentator Ramban teaches that it is a bow (as in bow and arrow) that is no longer aimed at the Earth. The flood sent in anger was God taking aim at the Earth, but now God’s wrath has ceased and the bow is pointing away. In the aftermath of the destruction, the rainbow is a symbol of God making peace with us.
Another medieval rabbi suggests that the rainbow is not merely a rainbow, but God showing Godself to humanity.
A more modern approach from Rabbi Shlomo Riskin explains that the rainbow is a half-picture. With this symbol, God can pledge not to destroy humanity, but we have freedom of choice; even God cannot guarantee that humanity will not destroy itself. Each time we see a rainbow, we are reminded that God is upholding His end of this covenant, but we still need to do our part as God’s partners in caring for the world.
I love this explanation. What if every time we see a rainbow, we pledge to do something good in the world and actually fulfill this promise? As we look toward the promise of a new year, I hope that we all lift our eyes to enjoy every rainbow we see. As we smile at the sight, I pray that each of these rainbows truly serves as a reminder, not only of God’s covenant with us, but of ours with God, to be God’s partner as we strive to make the world a better place.
Rabbi Arianna Gordon is the director of education and lifelong learning at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield.
What do rainbows remind you of? How can rainbows serve as a symbol of promises you have made? What will you do this year to be a better partner with God?