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The Rainbow: A Sign of God's Promise

  • The Rainbow: A Sign of God's Promise

    Noach, Genesis 6:9−11:32
D'var Torah By: 

Who among us hasn't looked up at the sky after a rainfall and exclaimed in awe and wonder, "Look—a rainbow!"

The rainbow plays a prominent role in this week's Torah portion, Noach. Although the rainbow also exists in other ancient myths, its appearance in this week's parashah has a lasting religious and moral significance. Other ancient legends depict a bow as a military symbol, for example, as a bow and arrow. In Parashat Noach the rainbow is a symbol of peace.

The medieval commentator Ramban explained that the base of the bow in Noach is not turned upward as if it were aimed down at the earth, sending forth arrows. On the contrary, it faces the opposite way, indicating that God is not aiming to destroy humanity. Similarly, enemies turn their bows inward toward themselves when offering peace to their adversaries. In addition, because the bow in Noach has no strings, it symbolizes not war and strife but promises of an era of love and peace.

But more important, the bow in this week's Torah portion is a sign of God's covenant, b'rit, between God and all humanity—a sign that the world will never again be completely destroyed by a flood. (Genesis 9:8-17)

We tend to forget that this mutual covenant was established not only between God and Noah but with all future generations. As a result, we, God's creations, are required to do our part to keep that covenant alive and work for a better, more peaceful world.

It is unfortunate that peace does not simply appear like a rainbow in the sky. Individuals and governments must constantly strive to achieve peace, and when it does occur, it is found not so much in well-publicized headlines, treaties, and handshakes as in small, everyday events that indicate an absence of war and a return to normalcy.

Today our fellow Jews in the Land of Israel are finally beginning to reap the results of peace. An example from our own Reform Movement helps illustrate this fact. Ten years ago at Kibbutz Lotan, a Reform kibbutz near Eilat, a terrorist crossed the border, shot a young woman working in the date field, and took another woman hostage. Miraculously, the wounded woman recovered completely, the terrorist was captured, and the hostage was released unharmed. In those days the Jordanian border was tense and guarded by soldiers; workers in the field were armed; and kibbutz members—like all Israelis7mdash;were frequently on the alert for enemy attacks.

This past summer the members of Lotan held a ceremony to recall that day ten years ago. Songs of peace were sung, and prayers for peace were read. And although complete peace has not yet been achieved, little by little a sense of normalcy has returned. The young woman taken hostage is now married with a child, and the wounded American volunteer, who has become a physician, recently returned to Kibbutz Lotan with her husband and four young children to make a life in the now-quiet, peaceful Aravah. The Jordanian border is no longer patrolled by the military, kibbutz members no longer carry guns to the fields, and a new generation of more than forty children plays outdoors unafraid. Throughout Israel, visitors from Jordan and other Arab lands swim in the Mediterranean and stroll the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Has peace truly come to the Middle East? No, not yet, not completely. But slowly, in small ways, the people there are working to fulfill their part of the covenant of peace with God. There will be setbacks, but when they occur, perhaps we can all remember to look up at the skies and find the rainbow, God's promise not to destroy humanity if we in return keep our promise to God.

In the last lines of this week's Torah portion (Genesis 11:26), we read that Abram, later renamed Abraham, the patriarch of our people, was a direct descendant of Noah. But Abraham was the father of two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, whose descendants have long fought each other. Perhaps now at last, all of Abraham's children can look forward to fulfilling the promise recalled by the sign of the rainbow, when God declared: "I have set My bow in the clouds, and it shall serve as a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth." (Genesis 9:13)

Questions for Discussion

  1. What other symbols of peace are found in Parashat Noach? Basing your answer on the Noah story, why do you think they have become peace symbols?
  2. The sages say that the most important peace is sh'lom bayit, peace in the home, for without it there can be no peace among nations. What do they mean by this? Do you agree? Can you think of situations in which achieving peace in the home can serve as examples for achieving peace among nations?

At the time of this writing in 1999, Rabbi Margaret J. Meyer was serving as the director of Alumni Relations at HUC-JIR and the rabbi of Congregation B'nai Israel in Jackson, TN.

Saving the Garden
Davar Acher By: 
Dan Ginis

In Parashat Noach we continue to explore an issue that is at the heart of Adam and Eve's experience in the Garden of Eden: the relationship between humans, the animals with which they coexist, and the environment. Animals were created as companions to Adam because "God said, 'it is not good for man to be alone.'" (Genesis 2:18) But later, the serpent engages Eve in a discussion that leads to humankind's first moral challenge and test of human potential. As a result, Adam and Eve's behavior has a lasting impact on our relationship to animals and the earth.

In Noach we see an even stronger link between human action (or inaction) and the fate of the environment. "God said to Noah, 'I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness....'" (Genesis 6:13) Human corruption brings on the rain that wipes out every trace of life not on the ark.

There is no doubt that the humans have sinned, but why do the animals suffer as a result? Rabbi Joshua ben Korchah answers with a parable about a man who set up a wedding canopy for his son and prepared many foods for the feast. Tragically, the son dies before the ceremony. The father dismantles the canopy and throws out the food, saying: "I have prepared all of this for the sake of my son. Now that he is dead, what need do I have of [food or] canopy?" Likewise, the Holy One said: "I have created animals...only for the sake of man; now that man has sinned, what need have I of animals?" (Bab. Talmud, Sanhedrin 108a, as transcribed in Sefer Ha-Aggadah: The Book of Legends, edited by Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky, translated by William G. Braude, Schocken Books, Inc., New York, 1992, p. 25)

According to this interpretation, animals exist solely for the use of humans. Although this view may be disturbing, it appears to reinforce the organic relationship that we have to the physical world. We cannot exist without a strong, conscious connection to the environment. Even if Noah had not engaged in active leadership to prevent the catastrophe, there is no doubt that a clear message has been conveyed: Our day-to-day behavior has an impact on things that may not seem linked. In this case, it is the environment.

Noah's role in saving a remnant of creation from the flood makes him one of the first environmentalists. Putting aside the issues we have with Noah as a moral leader, we see that his response resembles how we deal with the great environmental challenges of the present day. Just as Noah did not directly tackle the larger issues that led to the flood, many of our most respected and entrepreneurial environmental organizations address the issue of environmental problems in terms of the current bottom line and not their root causes.

A Family Role-Play Activity

Consider the responsibility of trying to convince family members of the importance of a certain task or idea. God communicated only with Noah and told him to take his family into the ark. As a family, role-play the conversation between Noah and his family members, during which Noah informs them of the coming flood. Have the family members respond in different ways, for example, with laughter, disbelief, or trust. Take turns playing Noah. Were you, as a family, able to reach an agreement? How did you feel when you assumed a role in the family that was other than your own? (Teaching Torah: A Treasury of Insights and Activities by Sorel G. Loeb and Barbara B. Kadden, Alternatives in Religious Education, Inc., Denver, 1984, p. 16)

At the time of this writing in 1999, Dan Ginis, a MAJCS/MSW graduate of HUC-JIR and the University of Southern California, was serving as the campaign director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta.

Reference Materials: 

Noach, Genesis 6:9-11:32 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 57-91; Revised Edition, pp. 57-83; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 35-58