The rainbow is symbolic of so many things. In this week’s portion, Noach, we read in shul about the flood that came upon the world and how G-d saved Noah and his family. At the end of the flood, we read about the rainbow.
The meaning behind a rainbow
What does a rainbow mean to us and humanity? It occupies a very important place in the context of the halacha, of Jewish law. For example, when you come across a rainbow there is a duty to say a special blessing. In the Hebrew we say: Baruch Atah Hashem Elokeinu Melach Ha’olam Zocher haBrit (the One who remembers the covenant) vene-eman bevrito (who is trustworthy in His covenant) ve kayam bema’a maror (and fulfils His word). One is obligated, in accordance with the Code of Jewish Law, to say this blessing.
The basis for it is in this week’s portion. After the flood, G-d makes a promise to Noah and his children that He will never again destroy the entire world with a flood. There may be portions of the world that will be destroyed through flood, but never the entire world and all of humanity. And G-d said to Noah and his son in Bereishit (9:8): “As for me behold, I establish my covenant with you. And with your offspring after you and with every living being that is with you, with the birds, the animals and with every beast of the land with you, of all that departed the Ark to every beast of the land and 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.” And G-d said: “The sign of the covenant that I give between me and you and every living being that is with you to generations forever, I have set my rainbow in the clouds and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. And it shall happen when I place a cloud over the earth and the bow shall be seen in the cloud, that I will remember my covenant between me and you and every living being among all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.”
The rainbow is the symbol of the covenant, the brit. But what is the concept of a covenant? Rambam, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, one of our great commentators of the Middle Ages, explains that the rainbow in this context is the symbol of an agreement between two parties – humanity on the one hand and G-d on the other. That covenant is symbolised by the rainbow. Similarly G-d made the covenant between Him and Abraham and the descendants of Abraham, the Jewish people, to be circumcision. But the symbol of the covenant between G-d and all of humanity is the rainbow.
What does a covenant mean?
A covenant is a two-way relationship. It’s similar to a contract except that it’s more permanent. A contract implies there can be breach and that the contract can fall away. A covenant is something that is eternal. Here is an eternal covenant between humanity and G-d. A covenant by definition is a two-way agreement with a double responsibility. G-d’s undertaking was never to destroy the world again and wipe it out in its entirety as He did in the time of the flood. The corresponding obligations of human beings were the obligations of what is commonly referred to in the Talmud as the seven laws of the children of Noah. There are seven major principles that govern all of humanity – moral and spiritual obligations – and these form the basis of humanity’s duties to G-d.
Some of them are in this week’s portion. One is the prohibition against murder, which reads: “…whoever sheds the blood of man by man shall his blood be shed for in the image of G-d he made man”. So we have here a verse which says: “Shofech dam ha’adam,” prohibiting the act of murder, which is mentioned in this week’s portion. These seven laws are mentioned and discussed in detail in the Talmud (Sanhedrin) and the Rambam (Hilchot Melachim). The seven laws of the sons of Noah bind all of humanity and, according to the Talmud, most of these laws were given to Adam and Eve originally and were passed down from parent to child all the way down the generations. The covenant was renewed at the time of Noah and re-emphasised by the symbol of the rainbow governing all of mankind.
The seven Noachide laws
The seven laws of Noah are as follows:
– The prohibition against pagan idolatry. The definition of pagan idolatry is the worship of more than one god; the obligation of monotheism, to worship one supreme almighty G-d, is the first commandment;
– The prohibition against blasphemy;
– The prohibition against murder;
– The prohibition against sexual immorality, which includes the prohibition against adultery and incest;
– The prohibition against theft;
– There is also the mitzvah to appoint a system of judges and a justice system that will enforce rights and obligations so that a society is governed in an orderly way by law and by justice; and
– The commandment mentioned in this week’s portion is the prohibition of eating flesh from a living animal, meaning that the animal must die before the flesh can be taken. Human beings were given permission to eat animals, although Adam originally was not given permission. Noah and his children are given permission to eat animals with the proviso that the animal must be dead at the time the flesh is removed because otherwise it is regarded as a form of cruelty to take flesh from a living animal. The text reads that every moving thing that lives shall be food for you, but flesh with its soul, its blood, you shall not eat.
These are the seven basic principles that apply to all of humanity. They’re not merely seven laws; they are far broader. For example, the commandment to worship only one G-d, according to Rav Moshe Feinstein, one of our great halachic authorities of the 20th century, includes the obligation to pray to G-d in times of trouble. Normally we might believe that prayer only in times of trouble is insincere. But, says Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the fact that a person does not pray in times of trouble indicates that they don’t believe in G-d.
These seven laws really form seven categories. For example, the prohibition against theft or murder gives rise to an important principle concerning the sanctity of human life.
What does it mean to be a human being?
This covenant tells us that the core of what it means to be a human being is to be engaged in a meaningful relationship with G-d. In last week’s portion, we read of how human beings were created in the image of G-d, which means every single one of us has a soul from G-d that has a dimension which reflects aspects of the Divine and renders us very similar to G-d. The Talmud draws parallels between the soul and G-d since the soul has many qualities of G-d Himself because G-d created the soul to be similar to Him. We are created to have a connection to G-d and that is the foundation of the covenant. When we say G-d made a covenant with all humanity, what it means is that humanity in its entirety can only fulfil its potential when it is engaged in a meaningful relationship with G-d founded on the covenant of the rainbow and on these seven principles, which constitute the foundation of everything. That helps us understand a great deal about issues such as the flood. The flood is really about human beings giving up that morality and breaking the covenant, as six of the seven laws had already been given to Adam and Eve. The world had degenerated from a moral and religious point of view, which led G-d to destroy it and begin again.
The narrative is important because the fact that there was a flood that wiped out the entire world is quite clear from a variety of sources and there is mounting archaeological evidence to support it. We don’t need that archaeological evidence, but accept the historical fact of what the Five Books of Moses teach us. But it’s very interesting that archaeologists have gathered facts to support it. But a very important supporting dimension of these facts is that in the writings of many of the ancient peoples, there is an account of a flood that wiped out the world, and therefore that’s very much part of the psyche: a flood occurred that is imprinted in the traditions of the world.
Foundation of the world
What is very interesting and was pointed out by a former Chief Rabbi of Britain, Chief Rabbi Hertz, who lived in the first part of the twentieth century, is that that if you look at the records of ancient peoples, you will see that the way they tell the story has no moral, spiritual or religious dimension. It’s a story of destruction, whereas the events are recorded in Bereishit as clearly having a moral dimension. The whole narrative of human kind is a moral religious narrative because that is the essence of what we are as human beings. That is why we have these seven laws that were given to the children of Noah to create the foundations on which the entire world is built. That is why, says the Talmud, man was created last. Human beings are the pinnacle, the climax of what creation was all about: so, why be created last? One of the explanations is that He chose to create Adam and Eve last in order that they would go straight from being created into a mitzvah – that of Shabbos, the special day of sanctity, as if to say that a human being was created not just to exist in the world, but to achieve sanctity in it. When Adam and Eve came into the world, there was drought, as the rains only came after they were created because G-d wanted them to pray. One of the first things that they would do would be to pray and thus establish their relationship with G-d. We are told that G-d created all the grasses on the third day of creation, but that doesn’t mean they actually came forth. Everything was waiting beneath the surface for rain and the rain came only after the creation of man. G-d wanted a human being to be created so he could be involved in sanctity and be in communication with G-d. This is the essence of what it means to be a human being. What makes life meaningful is that G-d created us for a purpose in this world – to do good and to serve Him and to be connected to Him and to others. That is why G-d had to establish a covenant with humanity, which is embodied in the rainbow.
The covenant also protects us against a very dangerous constituent of creation itself. We are told at the beginning of Bereishit that there was chaos and void, and darkness over the abyss. The Talmud teaches that G-d created the chaos, the void and the darkness. There wasn’t pre-existing matter. He created everything, yeish me’ayin. He created an entire world from nothing. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik says that G-d created the dangerous portion of chaos and void purposefully and, having done so, He then gave us the capacity to overcome it through the seven laws given to the children of Noah and His Ten Commandments. If a person is not governed by a higher morality, they can be consumed by chaos and void. What the world needs right now is a return to the covenant of absolute morality, of absolute right and wrong, to form foundations and pillars on which the world can be stable. Sanctity of life, sanctity of property, belief in G-d, kindness to animals, all of these principles are important to provide the moral foundations of a sturdy framework. These principles form the moral framework to hold the world together so that it does not descend into chaos and void.
Why a rainbow?
The covenant of the rainbow and the seven laws that were given to humanity form the bedrock on which all of human civilisation is based and the connection to G-d Himself. But why was the rainbow chosen out of all the things to symbolise this relationship between Him and humanity? According to the Ramban, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, one of our great commentators of the Middle Ages, the rainbow symbolises G-d’s friendship with the world as it almost looks like an upside-down bow. A bow suggests a bow and arrow. If you look at the shape of it, it looks like the bow is aiming its arrows from the earth and at the heavens. The Ramban says this is the symbol of friendship and connection between heaven and earth – the round part faces upwards to show that there is a connection between G-d and earth and it’s a connection of friendship. This is an important symbol because it’s coming to teach us that G-d is not at war with us. This covenant that He is laying down is not like arrows from the heavens being fired at us and is not indicative of a relationship of pain and discipline. The relationship is one of friendship and connection between G-d and earth and that’s why, at the same time as revealing the laws concerning our duties to Him, G-d said that He will never destroy the world again.
A pure connection
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch says that the rainbow is made up of colours that are broken into distinct parts from original white light that is refracted. Man was created and the human being is called Adam. Traditionally we understand that he was called Adam from the Hebrew word, adamah, which means the ground, because we came from the ground. There’s a discussion about why a human being should be called after the ground, as we are spiritual, so why make the whole focus of the name of the human being the ground, which is the least important component of a human being? The Maharal of Prague, one of our great philosophers, says that the ground is pure potential. So too, a human being is pure potential. You don’t know if a human being will be good or bad, great or ordinary; it depends on what they make of their potential. Ground is pure potential. If you’ve got a piece of ground, even if it’s fertile, it will depend on what you plant in it. Ground and the human being are pure potential so that’s why man is called Adam from adamah, from the ground.
Rabbi Hirsch says the word adam also echoes from the Hebrew word for red, which is adom. The connection between red and the human being is that in the colours of the spectrum, the colour that is least refracted or least deflected from the original white light is the red. He says that is the nature of the human being. The human being is the closest to the original white light. All creatures are created by G-d but none has the unique resemblance to G-d that the human being does.
Rabbi Hirsch says that the rainbow represents the diversity and the beauty of G-d’s world in all its magnificence and that is why it was chosen to represent the magnificence of G-d’s world and to represent the hope that lies within it. He says: “The phenomenon itself is woven from light and water. In the midst of overcast threatening clouds it announces the presence of light, is accordingly a reminder that in the midst of G-d’s threatening wroth, His preserving wroth is still there.” We see the magnificence of G-d’s creation, of all of the different dimensions of His creation and the diversity of it and we remember that it all comes from G-d. This entire world emanates from G-d and therefore it is linked directly to G-d, to the original white light. That’s what the rainbow represents, the magnificence of everything that we see: even though everything looks so diverse and disparate, all is linked to the original pure white light, which is Hashem Echad, G-d is One, who holds everything together. That is the hope of the rainbow, that amid the storm – because the rainbow always comes after the storm – there is that ray of light that comes through, which is also the way that Rav Eli Meyer Bloch, the late Telz Rosh Yeshiva, also explains the rainbow: that it is the presence of hope amid the darkness.
The rainbow is the symbol of G-d’s covenant with the world. It represents our connection to G-d and the fact that human beings were created to serve G-d and to be connected to G-d and that we need a framework of absolute morality to hold back the forces of chaos and void that lie at the heart of the human being and of creation. Why was the rainbow chosen to symbolise this relationship, commitment and covenant between us and G-d? Because the rainbow represents hope for humanity. There will be times that we’ll drift and go far away from G-d. But the rainbow represents the light that is always there: that everything in this world, all of humanity, no matter who we are and where we come from, are ultimately connected to G-d. That’s what it means in the blessing of the rainbow when it says that G-d remembers the covenant: He’s trustworthy in His covenant and He fulfils his word; He is always there for us, no matter how far we drift from Him. That is why the rainbow is such an important symbol for the new South Africa as it represents the unity of all of humanity connected to the original Divine light. It is a symbol of hope for humanity and for the future. It is the fact that we are connected to G-d and to each other, all coming from the original white light of one G-d Who holds the entire universe together.