Why the Rainbow?

We all know the story of the flood and how Noah, the zaddik (righteous man) of his time, was commanded to build an ark, and how he saved representatives of all the animal species as well as his own family. And how it rained for forty days and nights until the whole world was flooded and all the evil washed away. And then the days of waiting, and the raven and the dove, until finally the doors of the ark were opened and the old drama had ended and the new one was about to begin. And we all know that God made a new covenant between humans and God, and that God chose the rainbow as a reminder of that covenant. As the Torah says (Genesis 9:16): “And the bow shall be in the cloud and I will look at it and remember for ever the covenant between God and all flesh that is upon the earth.”

But we also know that the rainbow is a rare enough sight and furthermore, if there is one it appears when it rains and when it shines together. On a really stormy day when it feels as if the flood is once again upon us there is very little chance of seeing a rainbow.

So why is the rainbow the symbol to remember the covenant?

And who is it that has to do the remembering? I mean it could have been pink flying elephants or the sound of a bird singing, or the smell of rain in the air before a downpour — anything.

Before the advent of this new covenant, it’s fair to say that God saw the world, and thereby judged the world, in black and white. You were either a zaddik or a rasha (totally righteous or totally bad). If you were a zaddik you deserved to be saved, if a rasha then death. But the pass mark was not set at 50%. In such a scenario, there are no percentages. It’s all or nothing. If you didn’t pass with full marks then you failed. A binary world. Who could live up to such a high standard? Well, Noah succeeded and brought his family along. But that’s all. No one else made the grade. And they all perished. After the flood, God was forced to realize that the world is not black and white, that humans come in all shades, that very few are either all white or all black but rather comprise of all the hues (colors) of the rainbow.

In this way the possibility of Tshuva — return — was introduced into the world. Tshuva does not necessitate us becoming zaddikim overnight. If that were the case, then most of us would never make it. But it does require us to become a shade better. What does this mean? Blue must be a brighter, more brilliant blue revealing the full blueness of God; likewise for red and all the infinite shades of all the other colours.

So the sign of the rainbow is for God to remember that part of the beauty of the Creation is its diversity not only in the number of species but also in the shades of possibilities. This, if you want, arouses God’s compassion and patience.

And when we look at the rainbow, we are equally responsible for remembering that the world is not black and white but is made up of vast diversity. That each species is precious and must not be destroyed. That it is our duty to protected this inter-species diversity as it says in the Talmud: “To save the life of one person (read: species) is like saving the whole world.” And intra-species: we must remember that we all have complex feelings, differing political views, diverse creative powers, assorted needs, varied backgrounds, etc.

That’s what makes the world so beautiful.

About the Author
Michael Kagan is the author of the Holistic Haggadah (Urim), God’s Prayer (Albion-Andalus) and The King’s Messenger (Albion-Andalus Books). He is a scientist, entrepreneur, film-maker and teacher of Holistic Judaism. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife, Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan.