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Thoughts on Rainbows and Revelation

After the Flood in Noah’s day, a great rainbow appeared in the sky.  We read in Genesis that God told Noah, “I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall serve as a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth.  When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow appears in the clouds, I will remember My covenant between Me and you and every living creature among all flesh, so that the waters will never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.”


Not surprisingly, there is a difference of opinion among the biblical commentators as to whether the rainbow had been created specifically at this time for this purpose or whether it had existed from the time of creation, but now was being utilized as a reminder of this new covenant.  Some folks were on the fence on this question and thought that perhaps there always had been rainbows, but this one was a new and improved model following the flood.  There is a tradition that one should not stare at a rainbow perhaps because it is a reminder of the evil that brought about destruction of the world.  Nonetheless, we are instructed to recite a blessing when we do see the rainbow.  Once again, there is a bit of a controversy as to the proper formulation of this benediction. 


Rainbows are discussed in the final chapter of the Talmudic tractate of Berachot.  There we learn that Rabbi Alexandri quoted Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi as saying, “One who sees a rainbow in a cloud must fall upon his face.”  He derives this from a passage in the opening chapter of the Book of Ezekiel where the prophet describes his vision of heavenly creatures and “the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.”  The prophet tells us that what he saw was “as the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud,” a multi-colored, multi-faceted image. Ezekiel goes on to say, “And when I saw it, I fell upon my face,” as a sign of humility.  A commentator notes that the colors of the rainbow symbolize the glory of God and one may not stare at them.  The Talmud then tells us that in “the West” i.e. in the land of Israel, they would curse one who fell upon his face when seeing a rainbow since it could be misinterpreted and look like he might be worshipping this phenomenon. 


Despite this difference of opinion, all agree that one should say a special blessing.  At first, it is suggested that we recite the standard opening of Baruch Ata Adonay, Eloheinu Melech HaOlam, Praised are You, Lord our God, Sovereign of the Universe, and conclude “Zocher habrit,’ who remembers the covenant, referring to the covenant made with Noah. Another view was that of Rabbi Yishmael the son of Rabbi Yochanan ben Beroka, who concluded the blessing differently, with the words “Ne’eman b’vrito  v’kayam b’ma’amaro,” “who is faithful to His covenant and fulfills His word.”  As we find elsewhere in other cases, a compromise reached and the practice is to say both versions together.  Thus, on seeing a rainbow, one recites the blessing of “Zocher habrit v’ne’eman b’vrito v’kayam b’ma’amaro,.” “Who remembers the covenant and is faithful to His covenant and fulfills His word.” Unlike some other blessings where one does not repeat the bracha if one encounters the phenomenon multiple times in a month, such as the blessing for seeing the ocean, with rainbows, each is entitled to its own blessing, they are all separate entities.


This coming week, we will be celebrating the festival of Shavuot, the season of the giving of the Torah.  It was at this time that Moses ascended on Mount Sinai or into heaven itself to receive the Torah.  There are some very picturesque midrashim that imagine the obstacles that some of the gigantic and awesome heavenly creatures put in Moses’s way, since they objected to a human being entering their realm.  Only with God’s personal intervention, is the prophet permitted to come into the divine presence to receive the Torah.


We read in the Book of Exodus, that Mount Sinai was covered in clouds for six days and only on the seventh day did God call to Moses from the midst of the cloud.  God’s Presence appeared to the Israelites as a consuming fire on top of the mountain.  Nonetheless, we read, “Moses went inside the cloud and ascended the mountain; and Moses remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights.”  In the classic mystical text, the Zohar, we find a teaching given by an old man whom the rabbis encounter on their journeys.  This wise man explains that when the Torah says Moses entered within the cloud and went up the mountain, we should understand that this cloud was the very same cloud about which God had told Noah, “I have set my bow in the cloud.”  The old man continues, “We have learned that the rainbow removed its garments and gave them to Moses.  In that garment he ascended; from within it he saw what he saw, delighting in all.”  Later in the Torah, we learn that when Moses descended from the mountain he was radiating rays of light.  The Zohar sees this light as a rainbow of colors that Moses received as he entered this unique cloud of the Lord’s.


Dr. Daniel Matt in his commentary on this passage tells us that “the cloud signifies the Divine Presence.  Here it enwraps Shekhinah, who is Herself symbolized by the rainbow.” We had already learned of this symbolism from the passage in Ezekiel.  The various colors of the rainbow symbolize the different aspects of divinity that we refer to as the sefirot.  Rabbi Avi Strausberg, in her d’var Torah this week from Hadar, tells us that these radiant colors of the rainbow that enwrapped Moses, accompany him on his journey before God.  She says, “It is through these colors that Moshe is able to see and experience God’s Torah.  The colors are the key.”


Rabbi Strausberg refers us to the teachings of the Gerer Rebbe in the collection of his divrei Torah known as “S’fat Emet,” where he states that the Torah was revealed to each of our patriarchs in their own color and this, he tells us, is true as well of the tribes of Israel.  Every tribe had its own unique shade of color, their own strengths and challenges.  “They were full of individuals with different needs and longings and wonderings about the world.”  So, we might understand that when Moses ascends, entering the cloud, wrapped in the colors of the rainbow, he is representing all of us in our uniqueness and diversity. From this, we may conclude that God sees us all in our own special color and teaches each of us Torah in our unique hue.  God’s Torah then embraces all the colors of the rainbow, all varieties of people. We too are called to imitate God in this attitude and to reach out and embrace all people.


How appropriate then that the symbol adopted by the LGBTQ community is the rainbow and that this month in which we celebrate the giving of the Torah is also designated as Pride Month. Here in Aurora this Sunday, we will be joining an interfaith group of clergy and laity, celebrating diversity and pride, as we march together in Aurora’s annual Pride Parade.  We have been invited to New England Congregational Church before the parade at 10:00 am for an interfaith service of prayer and song and proceeding from there to the parade.  If you wish to come only to the parade, we are gathering at Orange staging area #16 at approximately 11:00 am under the name of “Faiths United Together in Love.”  The parade route is relatively short, but for those who cannot join us, there should be a video online of the parade.


As for Shavuot, please check your Scribe for details of our services next Tuesday night, and Wednesday and Thursday mornings.  On Monday night we will have an evening service at 8:30, followed by our Tikkun Leil Shavuot study sessions from 9:00 to 11:00 pm.  For those who cannot attend in person, we will also provide a Zoom link.  On the first day of Shavuot, June 12, services begin at 9:00 am and include the reading of the book of Ruth.  On the second day, June 13, we will again meet at 9:00 am and Yizkor memorial prayers will be said during the Torah service.


We  hope to see you on Sunday at the Pride Parade and wish you a joyous festival of Shavuot.


Shabbat shalom and Chag Sameach.


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