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Reading Rainbows

Noah 5776 / 17 October 2015

October 19, 2015

One of the best-known scenes in this morning’s parshah comes when God promises Noah never to destroy the earth again by flood. As part of the post-flood covenant between God and humanity, God explains:

This is the sign that I set for the covenant between Me and you, and every living creature with you, for all ages to come. I have set My bow in the clouds, and it shall serve as a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth, and the bow appears in the clouds, I will remember My covenant between Me and you and every living creature among all flesh, so that the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures, all flesh that is on earth. That… shall be the sign of the covenant that I have established between Me and all flesh that is on earth.[1]

Note the repetition of terms: In this brief passage we have the word קֶּשֶׁת, “bow,” and אוֹת, “sign,” three times each, and the word בְּרִית, “covenant,” five times — in the Hebrew, these terms account for one out of every six words used. אוֹת, “sign,” appears dozens of times throughout the Bible, often linked — as it is here — with the word בְּרִית, “covenant.”[2] In each case, the “sign” is a tangible representation, often visible, of a commitment or covenant between God and humans. The אוֹת reminds one or both parties of the terms and responsibilities in the covenant; familiar examples from Jewish practice include circumcision, tefillin, and Shabbat — all of which the Torah refers to as  [3] אוֹת 

In this case, the Torah tells us directly that the אוֹת, the sign in this case, is a קֶּשֶׁת, a bow — which, from context, we understand to be a rainbow. Ramban, the great medieval Torah commentator and mystic, briefly entertains the notion that rainbows had not existed until this point, and that the passage now describes God creating a new meteorological phenomenon. He ultimately dismisses the idea for grammatical reasons — God telling Noah, in the past tense, “I have set My bow in the clouds,”[4] rather than using the present tense — and instead Ramban concludes that God took a pre-existing weather condition, and imbued it with new significance in this moment.[5]

Ramban’s answer, however, raises another question: given that God used a natural phenomenon as the sign of God’s covenant, why a rainbow as opposed to any other thing? And how does the rainbow specifically remind God of the covenant not to destroy the world? Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, the great 19th-century German scholar, lists the common explanations:

  1. Our parshah is one of only two places in the Bible where the Hebrew word קֶּשֶׁת refers to a rainbow; in all other instances, it refers instead to the composite bow that my college advisor referred to as “the AK-47 of antiquity,” a powerful and ubiquitous military weapon. For this reason, some explain that the rainbow represents a divine weapon pointed away from the earth, as a sign of peace on God’s part; Ramban points out that ancient Greeks, when proposing a truce, would approach with bows reversed as a sign of non-aggression.[6]
  2. For others, the rainbow becomes an arc linking Heaven and Earth,[7] symbolizing God’s intention to work with, and not against, humanity.
  3. Finally, because the rainbow emerges from a combination of light and water, it can be understood to symbolize that no matter how harsh God’s judgment might appear to be — the dark clouds — God’s mercy — the light — will always prevail.[8] 

After listing the earlier proposals, Rav Hirsch goes on to offer his own insight. We know that the various hues in the rainbow are actually rays of white light spread out to reveal their separate colors. Nevertheless, when combined the colors still produce a pure white light. For Rav Hirsch, this quality of the rainbow assures us that “the whole spectrum of humanity, from the person of the highest spiritual refinement to the one in whom there is only a faint, barely discernible glimmer of the Divine —all are united by God in one common bond of peace. In all of them is found a refracted ray of God’s spirit.”[9]

Rav Hirsch, in his commentary, seeks only to explain the rainbow in its immediate context; but I believe his explanation offers us a key to understanding the message of the parshah as a whole, and its importance in the overall context of Genesis. Because it consists of multiple colors emerging from an undifferentiated white ray, the rainbow naturally evokes a sense of diversity and unity all at once — think, for example, of its adoption as a symbol of gay pride, where it is used to advocate for acceptance of diversity as well as to galvanize solidarity. With this in mind, our parshah’s final story, the Tower of Babel, offers a helpful foil to the main narrative of the flood. In both stories, God intervenes in response to human misbehavior; but in the first instance God brings a flood to destroy the world, whereas in the second God merely thwarts their plans but leaves the people unharmed. How do we understand the difference?

The people of Babel, unlike Noah’s generation, did not harm one another; on the contrary, they got along    well, cooperating to achieve great technical feats.[10] Their society took unity to the extreme, joining in single-minded focus to challenge the Master of the World. In response, God imposed diversity of language, forcing the people to abandon their project and spread across the world. The Flood generation, on the other hand, showed no unity whatsoever; their society, such as it was, descended into a Hobbesian “war of all against all,”[11] a state of near anarchy in which might made right. The Torah ultimately rejects both approaches — although it is worth noting that, if forced to choose, the Torah prefers a society that rejects God while still caring for human beings.[12] 

Our parshah teaches us that without solidarity, humanity is doomed; but without diversity, the horizons of our achievement are profoundly limited. Instead, we must look ahead to the rest of Genesis for an alternative model. The story of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — already foreshadowed at the end of this week’s Torah portion — leads eventually to the twelve tribes. In these tribes, each bearing its own diverse identity while remaining part of the united People of Israel, we find a model that combines the advantages of solidarity with the richness of diversity. The rainbow serves as the sign and reminder of God’s covenant because it represents an ideal vision of human society toward which we strive: diversity within unity. The covenant is invoked each time God sees that quality, represented by the rainbow, in our societies.

[1] Gen. 9:12-17.
[2] See Olam Ha-Tanakh: Beresheet 9:12.
[3] Nahum Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis 9:12.
[4]  Gen. 9:13.
[5] Ramban, Genesis 9:12.
[6] The Hirsch Chumash, Genesis 9:15; Ramban, Genesis 9:12; Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis 9:13 and Olam HaTanakh: Beresheet 9:13.
[7] Hirsch, Genesis 9:15.
[8] Hirsch, Genesis 9:15.
[9] Hirsch, Genesis 9:15.
[10]  See Rashi, Genesis 11:9.
[11]  Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Ch. 14.
[12]  Rashi, Genesis 11:9.

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