David Walk

Beyond the Rainbow

Recently, I read a letter from a pre-school teacher who claimed: I’m teaching 5- and 6-year-olds and these kids lose their minds over anything ‘rainbow’ colored; 50% of their coloring projects are rainbow themed. She wanted to know: Why are kids so obsessed with rainbows? My question to this teacher is: Why only kids? Isn’t everyone obsessed with rainbows? Designer Maria Killam described our passion for rainbows, ‘The colors of a rainbow are light, fresh and happy and since they are so rare, they elicit a sense of awe and delight in addition to bringing the promise of sunshine with the blue sky usually on the horizon’. Amen. In Judaism, our fascination begins with this week’s Torah reading. 

When Noach departs the ark after the destruction of the world as he knew it. God makes a BRIT or unbreakable deal with him: I establish my covenant with you: 

Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth (Breishit 9:11).  

But God doesn’t stop there, our Creator continues:

I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between Me and the earth… Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth (verses 13 & 16). 

So, there you have it. Rainbows equal good, hope and beauty; end of story. Well, not so fast. There are numerous statements by our Sages which seem intent on diminishing our infatuation with rainbows. They say that seeing a rainbow reminds us of that humanity is worthy of destruction. Only the rainbow’s awesome appearance as a reminding OT (sign) in the sky keeps God from bringing another round of destruction. However, when a generation has a great ZADIK in whose merit the world continues there is no need for rainbows. As a result, there were no rainbows in the generations of Chizkyahu Hamelech, Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai and Reb Yehoshua ben Levi.  

If that weren’t enough of a downer, the Talmud also informs us that we shouldn’t stare at a rainbow because it is the semblance of the of the Glory of God, based on the verse: As the appearance of the rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the appearance of the surrounding radiance. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory and brilliance of the Lord (Yechezkel 1:28).  The Talmud concludes that anyone who deliberately stares at a rainbow will diminish their eyesight (Chagigah 16a). 

The Mishna Brura adds: It isn’t appropriate to tell one’s friend that there is a rainbow visible in the sky, because that would be like spreading bad rumors (OC 229:1:1). Are we really an anti-rainbow people? I think not. 

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik discussed this issue and explained that when our Sages taught that the eyesight of one who gazes at a rainbow is dimmed, this is not meant as a punishment; rather, our Sages intended to say that if one cannot discern the glory of Hashem within a rainbow, ‘his eyes are dimmed’, that is he is already considered blind, for he does not know what he is seeing. It is for this reason that our Sages expressed the thought ‘his eyes are dimmed’, in the present tense as opposed to ‘shall be dimmed’, in the future tense.  

The Rav used similar logic when describing the dimmed vision from looking at the hands of the Cohen during his blessing. The ‘blindness’ is cognitive not physical. It is a lack of understanding that the amazing nature of the phenomenon comes from God, not the rain or the Cohen’s hands. 

The Kli Yakar says something similar, ‘for they didn’t look at the rainbow because of their honor (KAVOD) for their Creator’. I also believe that we can get this same message from the way our Sages wrote the blessing for the rainbow. This morning I said the dual blessings for the thunder and lightning. Those blessings are about the awe inspired by the power of these phenomena; ‘Who formed the act of Creation’ and ‘Whose power and strength fill the world’. On the other hand, pay attention to our blessing for the rainbow:  

Who remembers the covenant (Avudraham: when God sees the world’s villain, there is a thought of destruction, but sight of the rainbow is a reminder of the promise), is trustworthy in His covenant (no matter how much villainy increases, there will not be a destruction), and fulfills His word (even without the BRIT there wouldn’t be a destruction, because God had already said so in verse 11).  

Notice it’s not about the beauty or splendor of the rainbow. It’s about our faith in God and our confidence in God’s assurances. So, I think that it’s logical to assume that the ‘blindness’ is a metaphor for lack of understanding. 

Rav Asher Meir, who is wonderful at helping us understand the meaning behind many of our practices, says:

The message is that while we are able to perceive wonderful divine currents in the life of this world if we live with moderation and righteousness, we must never make the mistake of thinking that such splendor actually originates in the material world itself. This is like mistaking the rainbow for a brilliance originating in the cloud itself, which could be identified with the heresy of pantheism. We are allowed and even commanded to see the beauty in the world, as long as we use this vision to deepen our consciousness that the ultimate source of beauty is in God. 

God gave us a wonderful world. It’s right and appropriate to appreciate it. So, look at the ocean, view majestic mountains, and, yes, gawk at the majestic splendor of the rainbow. But always maintain focus on the Creator, not the creation.  

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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