I can always count on my friend Daniel Jacobsen to pose simple questions with complicated answers. Whenever I see him coming at me with that look in his eye, I know my brain is in for some heavy lifting.
This time was no exception. “I’ve been wondering about the rainbow,” he began. Here we go, I thought. And I was right.
“Why did God choose something so beautiful as a symbol of destruction?”
Much has been made of the shape of the rainbow: even as the Almighty points the arrows of divine wrath away from us, it is only His promise to Noah that protects us from the natural consequences of our own moral corruption.
But what do the colors and the beauty of the rainbow signify? Here was another simple question that had never occurred to me. I told Daniel that I’d have to get back to him.
What is a rainbow but the refraction of white light into a multitude of colored bands? Like the air we breathe and the water we drink, we take white light for granted; by doing so, we fail to appreciate the very blessings that are most essential to our existence. Indeed, as Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato observes in the introduction to his ethical classic Mesillas Yesharim, those things that are most obvious to us are the things most easily forgotten.
Only when moisture in the air disperses photons into a spectrum of color do we stop and marvel at the beauty of light.
In the same way, the unity of the Almighty that we declare daily when we recite Hashem echad is far too abstract a concept to guide us as we seek to infuse Godliness into our lives. We therefore partition the Divine “white light” of the Creator through the prism of human comprehension into 13 individual descriptive qualities on which we can focus one at a time.
When we do so, the primordial beauty of God’s indivisibility manifests in a rainbow of separate middos, or characteristics. Individually, they represent our journey; collectively, they represent our goal.
Now let’s apply the same principle to the Jewish nation as a whole.
An old joke tells of the Jew who proclaims his love for the Jewish people but denounces Steinberg as a cheapskate, Lebowitz as a crook, and Schneiderman as a nogoodnick. The sad reality, however, is that too often it isn’t a joke.
Jewish society remains plagued by divisiveness, with every group either too religious or irreligious, too dovish or too hawkish, too left or too right to suit any other group. Unity remains an abstract ideal as we look for ways of dividing ourselves up into increasingly narrow enclaves.
Why do we find it so difficult to celebrate our — dare I use the word — diversity? In Balaam’s blessing, he compares the Jewish people to streams winding in their course, gardens by the river, aloes planted by God, and cedars beside the water.
In his classic commentary Ohr HaChaim, Rabbi Chaim ben Attar explains this as an allusion to four different types of Jews. The first are those who follow the cultural “currents” to faraway places, bringing the water of Torah to Jews who have grown estranged from or neglectful of their heritage. The second are the scholars and teachers who have “planted” themselves in the study hall to be a source of learning and wisdom among their people. The third are the simple Jews who learn solely for the sake of learning in order to draw ever closer to their Creator. And the fourth group are those Jews who merit success in worldly enterprises and thereby are able to support Torah society.
How goodly are your tents, Yaakov, when your children celebrate their differences and use them to complement one another in the spirit of Jewish tradition and in the service of their Creator! How beautiful are a people united by their differences, like the colors of the rainbow, whose cooperation protects them from the divine wrath they might otherwise provoke on account of their shortcomings.
But the blessing contains its own warning. For what brought the devastation of the Flood upon mankind but the violent divisions of that benighted generation? And what separates us from one another more than the strength of our own convictions? Are there not too many of us who believe that our way is more “beautiful” than anyone else’s way, that only we are truly obedient to the Almighty and that everyone else is somehow deficient, that we alone enjoy a privileged status as servants of God while all who act otherwise are second class human beings, or second class Jews?
In much of the secular world, diversity has become a club to bludgeon into submission all whose sense of traditional values or personal integrity compels them to reject the moral anarchy that defines our times. Intolerance masquerades as forbearance, proclaiming an open-mindedness that is reserved only for those who conform to ideologically acceptable standards of cultural elites.
Is this a symptom of the final stage of our exile among the nations, in which the thinnest veneer of virtue adorns a society that has become morally bankrupt at its core? Or is it a symptom of our own failure to achieve the delicate balance between the moral conviction of our own individual pathways and the acknowledgment that the Jewish nation comprises twelve tribes, each with its own style, character, and personality?
I submit that it is both.
Who could miss the malignant irony of America’s presidential palace bathed in the colors of the rainbow to celebrate the perversion of marriage, forever and always the ultimate institution of morality and sanctity? The long, patient, unrelenting campaign of secular progressivism finally succeeded in its erosion of all resistance from a mostly traditional but wearily complacent electorate. And we who live in the midst of such a culture must remain constantly on our guard, lest we concede that moral corruption has simply become the way of the world around us.
At the same time, does this not signal some moral failure on our part as well? Does the collapse of modern moral standards not presuppose that we have fallen short in our mission to be a light to the nations? Is it not possible that our own unwillingness to celebrate diversity even within the boundaries of our time-honored traditions is what lies at the root of secular society’s distortion of diversity into an obscene parody?
It’s hard to imagine another generation more deserving of, or more in need of, the lessons of the rainbow.
In the end, we should always see the rainbow as both beautiful and terrifying. It is a symbol of God’s love for us and patience with us, but simultaneously a reminder of how much destruction we can bring upon our world if we do not carefully choose our course between religious and secular extremes.
Problems with attitudes can only be corrected through behavior, as the anonymous author of the Sefer HaChinuch says: “Man is made according to how he acts, for his heart and all his thoughts follow always after his deeds.” If we want to truly love our fellow Jews, we can’t continue to isolate ourselves from them, for by doing so we inevitably come to marginalize them in our own minds.
So reach out to connect with someone outside your own close, closed, comfortable group. Invite a family for Shabbos whose expression of Yiddishkeit may not be identical to your own, or seek out such an invitation. Stop by a kiddush in a different shul to say mazal tov or just to say hello, or even pray there once in a while, just as a reminder that, whatever our differences, we are ultimately one nation with one heart. Remember as well that the most exquisite flowers, the most dramatic seascapes, and the most inspiring mountain peaks are those that reflect all the colors of the rainbow.
Adapted from an article appearing in this week’s Inyan Magazine.