Friday, October 23, 2009

Remember the Rainbow

This is my 'd'var Torah' I'm giving this evening at Temple Beit Torah. Enjoy!

When I was a rabbinical student, I had a student pulpit for two years in Niagara Falls, New York. As is the case with all work locations, this one had its ups and downs. One of the most aesthetically pleasing aspects of my visits to Niagara Falls, was that the hotel where I stayed was very close to the Falls themselves. I often had occasion to view spectacular rainbows, either from the park right outside my hotel, or sometimes, even from the window of my room.

In this week’s Torah portion we read that the rainbow is a symbol of G-d’s promise not to destroy all life with a flood ever again. It’s a sign of His ‘peace treaty’ with humanity. When we look upon the rainbow, we are supposed to take heart that G-d, no matter how badly provoked, will not destroy us and our world.

There is some midrash on why G-d choose specifically the rainbow as a this sign of His peaceful intent. The midrash focuses on the shape and orientation of the bow.

Of course, the bow shape alludes to a war bow, as in a bow-and-arrow. The rabbis noted that, at the end of a battle between two armies on the ground, the side suing for peace would unload and unstring their bows and hold them vertically as a sign of their peaceful intent. That way, the other side would not suspect trickery.

The word ‘rainbow’ does not appear in the text, just the Hebrew word ‘keshet’ which simply means ‘bow,’ as in something bow-shaped, which is the same word used for a war-bow. So there is some justification to see that symbolism in the rainbow.

Of course, most of us look upon a rainbow and see something entirely different. The moisture in the air, whether from rainfall or from the mist rising from a massive waterfall, acts as a prism that takes the light passing through it and splits it into the different colors since each color has a different wavelength. (I’m really pretty clueless about physics and the other natural sciences, but this is something I seem to remember from high school.)

So, when we look upon the rainbow, we see a natural phenomenon. And the scientific reason for the bands of color is that the light-waves are different lengths. The splitting of the visible light into the seven basic colors just shows us that those are the colors, from which all other shades and hues are made.

Or is it ‘just’?

In the natural world, at least when there is a lot of ambient light, we are presented with a dazzling array of color. But when we see all visible light broken down to the seven different hues of the rainbow – orange, indigo, violet, yellow, red, blue, green – then we are reminded of the completeness of our world. Even though on any given day we might see more grey or more white than we wish, the rainbow reminds us that everything is there, if only we will see it all. And the rainbow itself helps us to see ‘it all’ even if our tendency to see only what’s immediately apparent often gets in the way.

In other words, the rainbow can help us to see the essential completeness of the world around us.

We all know the Hebrew word for ‘peace’ – shalom. Guess what? The root of the word ‘shalom’ means ‘completeness.’ In other words, ‘shalom’ is not merely an absence of fighting – that’s an armistice, or ‘hafsakat yeri.’ “Cease fire’ would be a direct translation of the Hebrew. No, the real intent of the word ‘shalom’ is completeness, the presence of all that is necessary for one’s well-being. A cease-fire is usually a good thing – every military strategist knows that it can also be a bad thing if it merely gives the enemy an opportunity to recoup his losses and prepare for the next battle. But it is not ‘peace.’

Of course, anybody here who lived through the Sixties is aware of the equating of the rainbow with the concept of ‘peace.’ Perhaps after the sign of the broken cross, the rainbow was the most widely-used symbol of peace then, and now.

So, here’s one of those happy convergences where the traditionalist’s understanding of the origin of the rainbow, and the science-minded person’s very different understanding – lead to the same basic conclusion. The rainbow is a sign of peace- probably the Perfect Sign. And as such, it is a sign of hope. If your enemy has unstrung his bow and is pointing it upwards, that’s a sign of hope. If, during a rain squall one can discern that all the colors are present, that’s a sign of hope. Hope is, unfortunately something that is usually in short supply.

I didn’t see a rainbow today. But I read the Torah and came across the reference to the rainbow as a sign of peace and, therefore hope. Don’t fail to see the signs counseling hope around us – whether in the realm of nature, or in the Holy text we read. To have the hope, and to march forward confidently in its glow – that is the most important thing.