Noach: The Rainbow Sign

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Noach

This week’s Torah study is in honor of my father, z’l, whose yahrzeit
was this week; he constantly appreciated the beauty, diversity and
complexity of nature.

Dear Friends:

This week, we read the Torah portion Noach, with its story of the
flood, the ark, the animals who came on by twosies-twosies, etc. (I
think y’all know that part.)

Less well known is what happens after the flood, when God promises
never again to bring such destruction on the earth, and says that the
rainbow will be the sign of a covenant with “all flesh” (not just

“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. ”
(Bereshit/ Genesis 9:13-15)

It makes sense that the rainbow would be a seen as a sign of God’s
covenant with all creation, because without such an assurance, one
could imagine some anxiety on the part of our earliest Biblical
ancestors every time it rained- “uh oh, is this Noach all over again?”
In fact, to this day, Judaism teaches that we should make a blessing
upon seeing rainbows:

“Blessed are You, Holy One our God, Sovereign of the Universe,
who remembers the Covenant, is trustworthy in sacred covenant, and
fulfills the Divine word.”

That is, every time we see a rainbow, we’re supposed to remember that
God is not going to bring another flood, but instead desires that all
Creation flourish and live.

Now- let’s be clear- your humble Torah commentator knows that rainbows
are caused by a refraction of the sunlight and are a natural
phenomenon not necessarily reflective (or refractive, as the case may
be) of a specific act of Divine intent. Yet having brachot- blessings-
over natural phenomena doesn’t mean we have to reject the laws of
nature; on the contrary, Judaism sees natural phenomena as
opportunities for wonder and gratitude. Heschel coined the phrase
“radical amazement” to describe that sense of overwhelming wonder at
the beauty and blessing of existence – thus, a rainbow can not only be
understood as the refraction of sunlight, but also experienced as the
bursting through to our consciousness of the extraordinary gift of
life and Being itself.

The Noah story is only incidentally about a big boat full of animals;
more importantly, it’s about recognizing that the world we live in is
not a scary place bound to be destroyed by a vengeful God, but is
rather full of blessing and grace- if we choose to see it, and if (big
if) we act accordingly. Seeing the rainbow reminds us that God has
(and will not) not brought the flood- but are we ourselves seeing the
fragile grace of creation and working to protect it?

God remembers the covenant with “all flesh,” but do we? The rainbow
sign turns out be a question mark.

Shabbat Shalom,


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