A few weeks ago, I was practicing Hebrew with my mom over Facetime (as is our Friday morning ritual). Usually we practice the prayer for healing, or the shema, or Tehillim (psalms). But as a change of pace we started to go over the various blessing for “praise and gratitude.” There’s the blessing upon hearing thunder, a blessing for seeing 600,000 Jews together, getting new clothes, etc. Then we got to the blessing over seeing a rainbow.
Blessed are you Hashem, King of the Universe, who remembers the covenant and is trustworthy in His covenant and who fulfills His word.
Instantly mom asked, why doesn’t this blessing seem to have anything to do with a rainbow? Then she remembered the story of Noah.
Rainbows are beautiful. They clearly and vibrantly lay out all the colors of the visible spectrum, they look great on school lunch boxes, and they’ve become a symbol of diversity and unity in our modern world. But as splendid as they are, in Judaism, when we see that multicolored arch, we’re supposed to remember that there was once a terrible destruction.
Kinda a bummer.
If that weren’t enough, there is a highly regarded custom that though we can glance at a rainbow, we aren’t supposed to gaze at it. And even though it is a mitzvah to say the blessing when we see it, according to the Mishnah Berurah, we’re not supposed to tell other people about a rainbow, even if it’s for the purpose of letting them know they can make that blessing and complete a mitzvah!
After Noah emerges from his Ark and the flood waters have finally subsided, God makes a covenant with Noah and all future generations that He will never exterminate humanity again through flood. Then he reveals the rainbow.
“I have placed My rainbow in the clouds that it be a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth. It will be, when I [consider] bringing gloom upon the earth, then the rainbow will appear in the clouds.” (Bereishis 9:13)
So first off, the rainbow is a memorial for a perished generation. Like taking Instagram selfies at Auschwitz, gazing longingly at a rainbow isn’t the most appropriate action. Then there are some opinions that a rainbow should be viewed as if God is seeing something in the world that people are doing that is making Him consider another destruction. Talk about a downer.
But if that’s the case, why did God make something so beautiful to memorialize something so tragic? Who doesn’t love looking at rainbows? To understand this we’ll have to go a little deeper.
Colors, Covenants, and Commandments
When God gives this rainbow-stamped covenant to Noah, God mentions it seven times over seven verses. (Between Bereishis 9:9 and 9:17) Seven has always been a big number in Judaism (days of the week, days of shiva, years of shemittah), but it is also interesting to point out we regard the visible spectrum to be made of seven different colors.
In addition to the covenant mentioning/colors coincidence, just prior to this moment God gives Noah a set of laws. Unlike the mitzvahs given only to the Jewish people, a whooping 613 which contain prohibitions of shrimp eating and driving a car on Saturdays, God gives a set of commandments for all of humanity to follow. Guess how many there are. Yup, seven. (Technically speaking not all of them are given in the text at this moment, but the Talmud agrees all seven were given to the children of Noah.) They are;
- Not to worship idols.
- Not to curse God.
- To establish courts of justice.
- Not to commit murder.
- Not to commit sexual immorality.
- Not to steal.
- Not to eat flesh torn from a living animal.
So between the seven colors, the seven universal laws (aka 7 Noahide Laws), and the seven mentions of the covenant, what’s the take away a person should have when staring at a rainbow?
According to Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, a rainbow is actually symbolic of a special kind of wisdom. Light has always represented goodness, intellectual clarity, Godliness, and even the Torah itself (known as Torah Ohr, or the light of the Torah). But unfiltered light isn’t something that’s meant to be looked at directly. Ever tried to look at the sun? Even most lightbulbs aren’t something you want to stare into for long.
What’s a rainbow? White light separated into its component parts, creating something beautiful. And what is it that separates the light? Raindrops from clouds of darkness. Out of the darkness of a storm comes the beauty, as if to say sometimes it takes some darkness to be able to see the beauty of God’s light when otherwise it would blinding.
Was it all Noah’s Fault?
Given the ominous origins of the rainbow, should we view them as such a downer? Should we freak out that we’re doing wrong and repent? Maybe. But I believe there’s a more nuanced and far more profound approach to the message.
The flood is actually referred to as Meah Noach (the waters of Noah). According to Rabbi Meir Shapiro, we attribute the fate of the generation to Noah as he was held responsible. I’ve written before about how righteous Noah was compared to someone like Abraham. The main idea was that though Noah was righteous and devoutly believed in God, he had stopped believing in other people. That’s something we are never allowed to do.
There’s a mishnah in Pirkei Avos 4:3 (which equals 7 if you add them up btw)
Don’t be scornful to any person and don’t look down on anything. For there is not any person who doesn’t have his hour and there isn’t anything that doesn’t have its place.
We are not supposed to live a life of isolation. It’s all too easy to get consumed with our own problems and our own self growth to have time or emotional capital to get involved with someone who either won’t listen to us or who we think is too far gone. So we shrug our shoulders and say “I tried. I guess live and let live.” But that’s precisely the darkness the rainbow is here to mitigate.
We are all interconnected and what we do affects the people around us in ways we can’t ever perceive and so we can never give up on reaching out. We don’t have to succeed and we don’t have to be annoying about it (definitely don’t be that guy on a college campus with a damning bible verse sign). But we do have to try. With sincere concern opposed to religious or personal agenda.
So when we see that rainbow in the sky, yes there should be a sense of awe, both for the destruction it memorializes and for its beauty. But instead of thinking, “Oh no! What should I do teshuvah for?” perhaps take a moment to consider who might need your help. Because to give up on humanity is a darkness that gives someone the permission not to care. Genuine love and caring always makes a difference. Remember, a Jew’s job isn’t to get the world keeping the 613 mitzvahs. Our job is to be the example that makes the world want to keep the 7 mitzvahs of Noah.