This week's Torah portion, Parshat Noach, brings us back once again to the story of Noah and the Flood. According to the story, God realizes that nearly the whole of humanity has become corrupt and lawless. It seems that God's whole experiment of creating people that have the ability to make moral choices for themselves didn't work out too well. And so, God commits the equivalent of filicide. (I'm not making this up: filicide is the disturbing phenomenon of parents killing their children. Read all about it here. Turns out that there have been many famous perpetrators of filicide. Most famous victim: Motown singer Marvin Gaye, who was shot to death by his father in 1984.)
The filicide piece is an awfully dark and disturbing setup to a story that we usually associate with preschoolers...cheery songs about Noah going into the ark with the animals "two by two" (my 3 year old can't stop singing that one these days!), the whole bit about the dove at the end, and of course: the cheesy ending with the appearance of the rainbow.
"And God said: This is the sign of the covenant that I give between Me and you, and every living thing that is with you, to generations forever. I have set My rainbow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth. And it shall happen, when I place a cloud over the earth, and the bow will be seen in the cloud, I shall remember My covenant between Me and you and every living being among all flesh, and the water shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh."
(Tangent: "I shall remember My covenant..." - I'm always puzzled by that phrase. Does that mean that God could conceivably forget something as important as this? Traditional commentators have long maintained that that is a mis-reading of the text. However, in light of the great tragedy of the Holocaust, in which some have suggested that God either forgot about the Jewish people, or somehow metaphorically 'fell asleep at the wheel' and didn't realize what was happening...this phrase from the Torah portion does in fact become more relevant and thought provoking. Anyway...back to the rest of the rainbow passage:
"And the bow shall be in the cloud, and I will look upon it to remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living being, among all flesh that is on earth....And God said to Noah: This is the sign of the covenant that I have confirmed between Me and all flesh that is upon the earth" (Gen. 9:12-17).
My big question: why in the world would God choose the rainbow as the symbol of the covenant (or relationship) between God and humanity?
One explanation focuses on the seeming miraculousness of the phenomenon of the rainbow itself. Seeing the miracle of the rainbow is somehow supposed to remind us of another miracle (God saving the future of humanity through Noah).
Sforno, of 16th century Italy, wrote that it was supposed to be a reminder to us of the circumstances that led to the flood in the first place: when we see the rainbow, we should remember to repent and improve the way that we live our lives (and inspire other people to do the same).
There are a whole bunch of other interesting Jewish interpretations here. My favorite one is the kabbalistic belief that the different colors of the rainbow represent the different aspects of God (the sefirot).
To me, the different attributes of God are really a metaphor for the diversity of humanity. If we (as Jews) believe that there is a little bit of God inside each one of us (an idea derived from the notion that we are all created in the image of God), then the diversity of God's attributes can also represent the diversity of humanity.
I would like to think that this might be one reason why the gay rights movement chose the rainbow as its symbol. In choosing a rainbow (keshet in Hebrew), perhaps the founders of the LGBT rights movement were trying to make a plea for diversity - for an acknowledgement on our part that WE ARE ALL DIFFERENT - AND THAT THAT IS OKAY.
Maybe the real message behind the story of the flood is the same: that in producing a miraculous rainbow at the end, God is proclaiming: that although the people of Noah's generation couldn't figure out how to get along with one another, and tolerate one another...that it is possible. Just as the different colors of the rainbow manage to appear together harmoniously - so too do we have the ability to get along. No matter that we may be different colors, or religions, speak different languages, or have different sexual orientations. We have the ability to get along with one another! It is an amazing truth of our human potential.
If only we would use that ability a little more often. Then maybe spotting a rainbow wouldn't seem all that remarkable.