“The Message of the Rainbow”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Noah, tells the story of the great flood that inundated the world in the days of Noah.

After the flood, the Al-Mighty instructs Noah to leave the ark together with his wife, his sons and his daughters-in-law, as well as all the animals that were with him in the ark. G-d charges them to begin life anew so that they may flourish on the earth, be fruitful and multiply, and replenish all that had been destroyed by the deluge.

As an expression of gratitude for the miraculous rescue, Noah builds an altar, and brings offerings to G-d of every clean animal and every clean bird. Upon inhaling the pleasing aroma, the Al-mighty says in His heart (Genesis 8:21): “Lo o’sif l’ka’layl ohd et ha’ah’dah’mah ba’ah’voor ha’ah’dahm,” I shall not continue to curse the ground again because of the human being. G-d then promises to never again smite every living being as He had with the flood waters and declares that as long as the earth exists, seed time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.

G-d then blesses Noah and his sons, telling them to be fruitful and multiply, and presents them with new dietary rules that allows them for the first time to eat the flesh of animals. Confirming His promise to Noah and his children, G-d establishes a covenant with them and their offspring, as well as all the birds of the sky and the beasts of the field. He then dramatically pronounces (Genesis 9:11): “Va’ha’kee’mo’tee et b’ree’tee eet’chem, v’lo yee’kah’rayt kol basar ohd me’may ha’ma’bul, v’lo yee’yeh ohd ma’bul l’sha’chayt ha’ah’retz.” I will confirm My covenant with you: Never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.

At that point, G-d identifies the sign of the covenant that He has established between Himself and every living being, for all future generations. The Al-mighty declares (Genesis 9:13): “Et kash’tee, nah’tah’tee beh’ah’nahn, v’hay’tah l’oht brit bay’nee oo’vayn ha’ah’retz,” I’ve set My rainbow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth. The Al-mighty then explains that when He places a cloud over the earth and a rainbow is seen in the cloud, He will remember His covenant between Himself and humankind and every living creature, and the water shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.

Our rabbis wonder not only about the meaning, but also about the origin of the rainbow. Both R. Saadiah Gaon and the Ramban maintain that the rainbow pre-existed the flood, since the above quoted verse (Genesis 9:33) employs the past tense, stating: I [G-d] placed my rainbow in the cloud. Because of this, our rabbis conclude (Talmud, Pesachim 54a) that the rainbow was one of the ten creations that were created at dusk, on the eve of the very first Sabbath.

The Talmud, in Berachot 59a, quotes Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi as stating that one who sees a rainbow in the cloud must fall on his face. This opinion, however, was rejected by the authorities in ancient Israel because it might appear as if one were bowing down to and worshiping the rainbow. However, in acknowledgment of G-d’s promise, a blessing is recited whenever a rainbow appears in the clouds. The blessing recalls G-d who remembers His covenant. Rabbi Ishmael, the son of Rabbi Yochanan ben Berokah, says that the proper formula for the blessing is to bless G-d who is faithful with His covenant and fulfills His word. To resolve the two opinions, the prevailing custom today is to say, Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, who remembers His covenant, is faithful with His covenant and fulfills His word (Tosafot in Berachot, 59a).

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch considers the rainbow to be an “oht,” one of the special signs that G-d has established to serve as reminders for great truths and principles for all generations, such as circumcision, Shabbat, and tefillin.

Rabbi Hirsch notes that it is no coincidence that the rainbow appears in the shape of a weapon that is facing away. The fact that the “bow string” faces the earth is intended to show that the “archer” is aiming away from the earth as a sign of peace, and serves as a promise that there will be no more destructive “arrows” from heaven. The arc of the rainbow recalls a bridge that joins earth to heaven, bonding them together. The fact that the rainbow, with its beautiful colors, always appears along with overcast and threatening clouds is intended to announce the presence of light, and to assure the people that even though G-d’s anger threatens, His grace and mercy is always present.

The fact that a rainbow is composed of many colors is interpreted by Rabbi Hirsch to mean that G-d joins the lowest, humblest form of life, even the worm, together with the highest human intellect. “G-d unites them all together in one common bond of peace, all fragments of one life, all refracted rays of the one spirit of G-d, [to affirm that] even the lowest, darkest, most distant one [is] still a son of the light.”

The rainbow, we see, is a most optimistic and significant message for all humanity.

May you be blessed.