Recently, in the late afternoon, after a classic Arizona monsoon, the sun broke through the clouds just long enough for me to see a stunning double rainbow above Temple Solel. It was simply breathtaking.
Judaism offers us blessings to recite so that we never take for granted the beauty and abundance that surrounds us. There is even a special blessing upon seeing a rainbow: “Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha’olam zokher hab’rit v’ne’eman bivrito v’kayam b’ma’amaro — Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who remembers the covenant, and is faithful to God’s covenant, and keeps God’s promise.”
This is a curious blessing, as it doesn’t actually mention the rainbow. It refers instead to the climactic moment in the biblical flood story, shortly after a dove brings an olive branch to Noah, signaling that the waters have begun to recede. God instructs Noah, his family and the families of all that stir on the earth to disembark from the ark. God then shows Noah and his family a keshet, a rainbow in the clouds, as a sign of God’s covenant; declaring never again to bring a deluge to destroy humanity and all that lives on the Earth (Genesis 9:8-17).
Judaism, never lacking chutzpah, turns two deeply entrenched ideas of the ancient Mesopotamian world on their head. First is the radical notion that God (yes, one God!) learns a lesson from the flood. God can’t keep wiping us out every time we screw up. That’s our nature. God needs humanity to be caretakers of all the earth. A covenant, after all, is a bond between two or more parties. Just think of it: Judaism conceives that the one, all-powerful, omnipotent God needs us, as imperfect as we are, to complete the work of creation. To bring peace on Earth. That’s quite a mission!
The second idea is the choice of a rainbow to represent this covenant. In the ancient world, the rainbow was a common symbol for hostility, as the other definition of keshet is a bow. God takes the bow, this symbol of hostility, and turns it away from humanity and the earth. The symbol of war is inverted — now a multicolored bow turned into a symbol of peace, inclusion and reconciliation. That’s the power of narrative and art — to create a different vision for the world and our place in it.
The Hebrew blessing upon seeing the rainbow, again with a little chutzpah, reminds God of the covenant. As if God needs a reminder. By saying the blessing, perhaps we’ll remember our part of the covenant, our responsibility to be peacemakers and stewards of the earth. That, too, is our nature. May this Shabbat give us the time and space to reflect upon two rainbows in the sky — expressing gratitude and doubling down on our commitment to be God’s partner on earth. JN
Rabbi John A. Linder is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel.