THE PARADOX OF THE RAINBOW
The establishment of the rainbow as the sign of the covenant, which God forged with humanity, indeed all creatures, after the Flood, is most perplexing.1 Why should this phenomenon of nature serve as a sign of this specific promise and event? A minority of commentators answer by maintaining that the rainbow was specifically created at this time to serve this purpose,2 and the verse is, simply, informing us of this. The problem with this answer, though, is that, since the rainbow is a natural consequence of the rules of science, such a new creation would imply that God changed, at this time, the very laws of reality. This leads many commentators to conclude that the rainbow, as a natural phenomenon of science, could not have been created at this time.3 How then, though, did it become a sign of this covenant?
Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Bereishit 9:13 does not seem bothered by this question. He states that God, at times, chooses different items to serve as reminders to humanity of basic truths and principles. God, as such, simply designated the rainbow, always in existence, to now serve also as a sign and reminder of this covenant.4 Others, however, do see some uniqueness in this establishment of the rainbow as the sign of this covenant and thus feel that there had to be something special in the appearance of the rainbow at this time. Their perception is that, in stating that the rainbow was already created, what is meant is that the rules of science already ensured the possibility of a rainbow. This appearance to Noach, though, was the first time that the atmospheric conditions were such that a rainbow could actually be formed; this was, thus, the first actual rainbow. This approach, however, would still seem to indicate that something changed in the world after the Flood and that the rainbow was thus the sign of the covenant because it was a physical manifestation of this change. While the laws of nature do not change for “there is nothing new under the sun,” the manifestation of these laws in the world could and did change5 – and it was this change that allowed God to assure Noach that another Flood would never occur. The rainbow, it would seem, marked this change but, still, what is the connection between this physical change and God’s covenant with Noach?
Chatam Sofer, Torat Moshe, Parshat Noach, d.h. V’lo identifies and questions this moral change that is being described through these verses. How can God assure Noach that He will not bring another Flood upon the earth? What actually is the significance of this assurance? If it was just for God to have punished the generation of the Flood with such a consequence, would it not similarly be just for God to repeat this penalty if a future generation would also, lo aleinu, be so deserving? In such a circumstance, God’s assurance would seem to contradict the demands of justice. And if no future generation would be deserving of a punishment of the Flood, what is the very need of this assurance? God would not have to bring forth a Flood in any event. It must be that the moral nature of humanity also changed after the Flood so that a consequence of a Flood would no longer be just, given this change in humanity. This is the very essence of the sign of the rainbow. In the same way that the manifestation of nature changed after the Flood so that rainbows may now occur, the moral nature of humanity changed so that a punishment of such a devastating flood would no longer be appropriate and just.
This idea finds support in a significant source that clearly points to the rainbow as a product of the week of Creation: Mishna Avot 5:6, which states that the rainbow was one of the ten items created bein hashmashot, in the twilight, between the sixth day of Creation and the first Shabbat. Maharal, Derech Chaim explains that this twilight period between the six active days of Creation and the first Shabbat represents a time between the realm of physical nature and the realm of the cessation of activity of the spiritual/moral realm. All the items created in this period are physical, natural entities that also have specific spiritual/moral significances. The physical dimension of the rainbow represents a significant spiritual/moral concept. A world whose atmosphere cannot produce a rainbow represents one spiritual/moral dimension. A world that can produce a rainbow represents another. The existence of a rainbow is a sign from God that there will not be a Flood, even though it would be deserving under the rules of the other dimension, because we are now governed by different constructs. What, though, is this change in the spiritual/moral dimension and how is it demonstrated by the change in physical nature marked by the rainbow?
Chatam Sofer contends that the world changed in that intermediate stages of existence now came into being after the Flood. Before, for example, until a person deserved a punishment for a sin, that person was fine; once justice demanded full punishment, it, though, was carried out. As such, a person would be just fine one moment and then, the next, die instantaneously. The world after the Flood would, though, have stages. A person who may be following an incorrect path could get sick first, thereby receiving a message that teshuva should be considered or, thereby, becoming too weak to continue his/her path of sin. The rainbow is the sign that this change has occurred and, so, Justice is constrained and guarded.
Many questions still abound. How does the rainbow convey this message? It is pointed out that prior to the Flood there was no rainbow because the atmosphere was thick with clouds and so light could not penetrate to, thereby, produce a rainbow. Perhaps this thickness of the atmosphere represented the heavy hand of Justice in that existence. A more poignant question, though, may be: which dimension is objectively the better one for humanity to reach its Divine goal? Is it better to live in a world with rainbows than one without? Our verses seem to point to this change as one that Noach welcomed yet Rashi, Bereishit 9:12 points to two pious generations who were so great that a rainbow was never seen in those days. Ultimately, we are faced with the very paradox of the rainbow – a site so beautiful that we are motivated to even inform others to gaze upon it so that they may see its beauty, yet filled with such a powerful message of our own weaknesses that T.B. Chagiga 16a instructs someone not to gaze upon it for thereby one is not showing concern for God’s honour. What is this message?
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht
1 Bereishit 9:8-17.
2 For a presentation of the spectrum of opinions regarding the creation of the rainbow, including when it was created, see Rabbi Yehuda Nachshoni, Hagot B’Parshiot HaTorah, Noach 2, HaBrit HaRishona Bein HaKadosh Baruch Hu L’Briah.
3 Torah Shelaima, Bereishit 9:13, note 81 quotes a statement from Bereishit Rabbah that maintains this view lfi sh’ein kol chadosh tachat hashemesh, there is nothing new under the sun [after Creation]. See, also, Rambam, Peirush Hamishnayot, Avot 5:9. (It may be of interest to note that this statement from Bereishit Rabbah is not found in our copies of this work but it is quoted as such by Radak.)
4 See, also, Ramban, Bereishit 9:12.
5 The sources point to numerous other changes that occurred in nature such as, for example, the lessening of the lifespan of individuals after the Flood.
© Nishma 2009
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