David Fine

Rainbows and red berets

Rainbows are funny. They are simply breath taking. Their beauty is exquisite and it’s almost impossible not to gaze at them until they disappear. Yet Jewish law tells us that we are not permitted to stare excessively at rainbows. Shulchan Aruch (OC 229:1) in the section dealing with blessings said upon seeing certain wonders writes: “One who sees a rainbow should say ‘Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who remembers the covenant, is faithful to His covenant and true to His word.’ It is forbidden to gaze excessively at it.”  This seems to defy logic. If something is so beautiful that it warrants a special blessing one would think that the more one looks at it the better. As the blessing makes painstakingly clear the rainbow reminds us of God’s covenant not to bring about another flood to destroy the world. It prompts us to be thankful to God for not destroying the world. And yet the rainbow also conjures up tragedy as we remember what could have been. Throughout the centuries scholars have attempted to explain this odd law about the rainbow. One explanation is that of the Zohar which writes that the “rainbow corresponds to the Shechina, and hence one who looks at it is considered to be looking at the Shechina.” One may be able to glance at God’s glory, but one gazes at his own risk. “You cannot see My face, because a man cannot see Me and live”, God famously tells Moses. Some have compared this to the custom of some not to look at the Kohanim when they bless the people. The Talmud states that the eyes will become dim for both those who glance at rainbows and those who glance at the Kohanim as they bless the people.

This morning, I saw a rainbow. I was only able to glance at it. Even if I wanted to gaze at it I couldn’t. My son, Zachy, sitting next to me in the passenger seat suddenly started saying the blessing. I asked him where the rainbow was and he pointed out the window of the right side of our car. Because I was driving, I quickly glanced at it out of the corner of my eye and said the blessing as well. We were driving in the rain from our home in Modiin to the Otef Azza area, the center of all our attention since that black day in October. I have travelled that road so many times over the last few months to visit and bring groups to witness and pay testament to the death and destruction wrought by Hamas at Reim and Beeri, Kfar Azza and Netiv HaAsara, Sderot and Zikkim. I use many of the guiding skills that I acquired in my Poland guiding course that I took several years ago. But today was quite different.

We were traveling to that very same area to witness something else entirely. Today our son, Amiel, received his red paratrooper beret after 7 months of grueling training and 2 weeks in Gaza. Today we stood and watched him along with hundreds of his comrades enter the ranks of the paratrooper brigade ready to do whatever defending the state of Israel requires. We heard about what the brigade achieved in Gaza despite the falling of tens of its soldiers. We saw young men burning with desire to make Israel strong, proud, and good. It was actually breathtaking. Breathtaking…like a rainbow. And suddenly I understood. Something so beautiful can only be glanced at because it is the Shechina. I literally had to fight off tears and even look away as I watched these boys. It was one of the most moving experiences of my life. We were able to see God’s glory above the new red berets almost like the shechina at the fingertips of the kohanim. During the Hatikva at the end of the ceremony I actually did shed some tears.

The Mishne Berura writes that one who sees a rainbow should not tell his friend as it involves slander (Motzi Diba). Once again perplexing. One should not give his friend the opportunity to say a blessing and witness the wonder of God’s creation out of fear that he may think negatively about God’s desire to destroy the world?! I have never heard of anyone seeing a rainbow and being able to control themselves and not giddily tell others. Have you? We have a choice. When we see a rainbow do we see God’s beauty, do we think of his covenant to always be kind, or do we think of the seemingly destructive and regretful God who no longer believed in humanity? When we look at Otef Azza do we see only the destruction, the wanton murder and violence or do we also see the heroism of soldiers and civilians who knowingly gave up their lives to save others, ordinary people who set up field hospitals and places for soldiers to eat, instantly becoming heroes? Do we see only the grey that was in the sky today or do we see the color as well even if only for a moment? Do we witness sights and think of Poland and the Holocaust, or do we realize that although these sights may appear identical, they are worlds apart. Then they didn’t have these boys. These fresh paratroopers are the rainbow in the grey. You only need to glance quickly at them to know it. There should be a bracha for seeing them!

About the Author
Rabbi David Fine is the Founder and Dean of the Barkai Center for Practical Rabbinics in Modiin, Israel. He was a pulpit rabbi in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Overland Park, Kansas before making Aliyah in 2008.
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