For the week ending 6 November 2010 / 28 Heshvan 5771


by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Melissa

Dear Rabbi,

According to the Torah, the rainbow symbolizes G-d’s promise that He will no longer destroy the world with a flood. So that after heavy rains, the appearance of the rainbow is G-d’s way of letting us know of G-d recalling His promise. It follows, then, that the rainbow conveys our would-be destruction, if it weren’t for the promise. It seems to me, therefore, that the appearance of the rainbow is a curse, not a blessing. But if this is so, why is the rainbow so beautiful?

Dear Melissa,

First of all, you’re right, the appearance of the rainbow does imply G-d’s disfavor with the world. Your line of reasoning is shared by the Talmudic Sages who noted that the rainbow never appeared in the lifetime of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Why? Because in the merit of this holy and righteous Sage, the world was never in danger of being destroyed. Therefore, there was no need for a rainbow as a sign of G-d’s promise.

So you ask, “If the rainbow is essentially a curse, why is it so appealing?”

On a purely simple level, one answer might be that there are many very tantalizing and appealing things in life which are not a blessing, but rather a curse. Pursuing them too fervently can actually lead to destruction of one’s self and others. The multi-hued beauty of the rainbow may in fact represent this multiplicity of seductive paths leading away from holiness. Perhaps this is why we may not indulge in gazing too intensely at the rainbow’s beauty – lest it lead us somewhere over the rainbow way up high.

That being said, it’s interesting that we make a blessing over this “curse”. Upon seeing a rainbow in the sky after rain, one recites: “Blessed are You, G-d…Who remembers the covenant, is trustworthy in His covenant and fulfills His word.” True, the wording of the blessing implies the multi-colored arc’s crooked nature – but if the rainbow is in essence a curse, it’s hard to understand how it is the subject of, and inspires, a blessing with G-d’s name.

Let’s explore a deeper answer, then, to your question.

Interestingly, while water in Jewish sources represents sensuality and physical pleasures, it is also a symbol for Torah. So, if on one level the rainbow represents the way in which pure, G-d-given energy is refracted through this-worldliness yielding a multiplicity of worldly pleasures, it simultaneously also represents the way in which that pristine, Divine light is refracted through the Torah, yielding a vast variety of spiritually fulfilling opportunities in G-d.

The generation of the flood indulged in this worldliness to the point of perversion. Their wanton obsession with variety and variation resulted in their abusing the full gamut of their G-d given powers for the purpose of impurity. The flood purged the world of this impurity and the rainbow was given as a sign and reminder of what results from inundating the world with indulgence. However, the same rainbow simultaneously reminds us to repent from the relentless pursuit of multiplicity drawing us away from G-d. It urges us to direct the full spectrum of our powers and interests over the rainbow to the One on High.

In this way the rainbow is at once both curse and blessing; transgression and repentance; seductively appealing and pristinely beautiful. It depends on what you’re looking for in life. And perhaps that’s why, although it’s forbidden to indulge in the rainbow’s beauty, one may gaze at it – for the purpose of doing teshuva and directing one’s pluralities to G-d — in order to make the blessing.

This understanding may also partially explain the Kabbalistic reference to the rainbow as a taut, upturned bow with which spiritual arrows may be shot into the World of the Sefirot, which, when impregnating their target, result in bounty and blessing being birthed into this world. The arrows correspond to our assorted powers that may be aimed in any direction we choose. We are to contemplate the message of the rainbow and harness the tension drawn between the physical and spiritual to project our plurality of powers upward in repentance. These properly aimed prayers penetrate the spiritual realm, are received favorably by G-d (who seeks not the destruction of the wicked but rather that they repent and live) who then bestows benevolence on the world like sunshine after rain – with a rainbow.

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