This week we read the story of Noah. Our Rabbi blogger, Howard Cooper, takes a look at the rainbow and it's meaning within the biblical story as well as Judaism of past and present.
What do you think when you see a rainbow?
What do you feel? Do you say to yourself: ‘Oh, look at that fine example of the refraction and dispersal of light in water droplets?’. You may know that this is what you are seeing, but I doubt that you experience a rainbow in that way. I’ve noticed that people often stop what they are doing and look, gaze at it for a while. (Nowadays they also seem to instantly reach for their phones to take a picture if it). We stop and look at this natural phenomenon as if has some meaning. As if it is more than just an optical illusion (which it is) or a temporary aesthetic experience of a beautiful aspect of the natural world.
What’s going on?
There is a sense of wonder. Perhaps of awe. We are taken out of ‘ordinary’ life and feel as if something special is being offered to us – if only for a moment or two. Part of our response to a rainbow may have to do with its transience. We know it won’t last.
Do we sense that we are being shown something important about life itself: its impermanence, its fragility?
We may in the end be unsure what it is about a rainbow that we delight in. But we know that it is hard to be indifferent. It’s as if something is addressing us through this fleeting experience. Like a dream we can’t remember, its meaning seems just out of reach.
Judaism has its own mythology around the rainbow.
This week we read the story of Noah, the survivor of the primeval environmental disaster the Torah calls the mabbul, the Flood. And when humanity has been destroyed and only Noah and his family remain, the sign that divine destructiveness will never again wipe out the human race or the earth itself is - the rainbow.
In a daring piece of creative storytelling, the narrators suggest that even God needs to be reminded not to let destructiveness take over. Human life is precious. Life on earth is precious. The planet is precious.
“And it shall come to pass… when the rainbow is seen in the clouds, that I will remember my covenant which is between Me and you and every living creature, and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh. And the rainbow shall be in the clouds, and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature...” (Genesis 9: 14-16).
So the rainbow becomes an aide-mémoire for God. And because of this piece of mythic storytelling, the rainbow becomes a reminder for us. The covenant, the promise, has been handed on to us. The battle between creativity and destructiveness is a an ‘everlasting’ struggle not only in the heart of God, as it were, but in the human heart. The fate of the planet is now in our hands.
We know that the environmental crisis threatens the wellbeing of many millions of people, along with the natural world, and the animal world – so the rainbow reminds us of the fragility of all of life on the planet. It’s now in our hands. Can we keep faith with the covenant, the promise? That this precious jewel in the crown of the created universe must never be ruined or destroyed? How can we keep ourselves sensitised to the spiritual task we have been set (which is also a social and political task), the sacred destiny we have taken upon ourselves – to preserve and nurture this precious life on earth (and the life of the earth) that we so enjoy? Perhaps we need to be encouraged to appreciate moments of wonder, moments like seeing a rainbow.
Perhaps we need to be helped to develop an attitude of what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called ‘radical amazement’ at the extraordinary richness and diversity and abundance of life that exists at every moment.
Perhaps we need to refine our sensitivity to how much is wondrous in the unfolding life of the world.
This may be less difficult than we imagine. For we all know these moments of wonder. Moments when we feel as if we are seeing the world – or something in the world, or someone – for the first time. Moments when we become finely attuned to the rhythm and pulse of life. Moments when life is filled with ‘nowness’.
Holding in your arms your newborn child. Gazing awestruck at the stars in the night sky. That first glance across a room - eyes meeting - at a party you didn’t want to go to. Watching the sun set over the ocean. Walking in the mountains - experiencing the grandeur of the natural world. Or just digging over the earth, appreciating the gifts of your own humble garden.
Listening to certain kinds of music, Beethoven’s late sonatas; or singing Handel’s Messiah in a choir. Celebrating a life event in your family, or with friends – sharing moments of joy. Confronting the death of someone we love, or a stranger: bearing with the process, offering comfort and support. These moments of ‘nowness’ – what the medieval German Christian mystic Meister Eckhart called Istigkeit ‘is-ness’ - can come in all sorts of situations.
Through sharing food, or in sex, or through silence. Through doing a piece of work with precise attention to what is happening at each moment, the nowness of creativity. Through being fully engaged in helping someone in need, simple acts of compassion or generosity. Speaking in depth with another person, or listening in depth, creating moments of intimacy, of meeting, of what Martin Buber calls Begegnung - ‘encounter’.
Alles wirkliche Leben ist Begegnung – ‘all real living is meeting/encounter’.
We know these moments, they are precious, life-affirming – but none of them depend necessarily on belief in a divine ‘Being’ or on being part of a religious tradition.
The most supposedly secular of hearts can still experience these moments of wonder, of nowness. What is important is to recognise them, appreciate them - and appreciate too that we have a responsibility to support each other and protect the planet so that such moments can be available for generations to come.
A rainbow is like a mini-revelation of a different dimension of reality, that is always with us, but also outside our grasp, beyond us, uncontrollable by us. The poet William Blake captured this, the potential for each moment to reveal something to us:
‘If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite’.
Moments of wonder come to us unexpectedly - they can’t be forced. And yet we sense that we can hold ourselves open to them.
Judaism traditionally had a way of helping us keep ourselves open to moments of wonder, of nowness; of helping us nurture our ‘radical amazement’ about the grandeur and mystery of life. Of helping us feel gratitude. And therefore a sense of responsibility for the nurturing of life in all its forms. The rabbis of old developed a series of b’rachot – ‘blessings’ – for such occasions: on seeing the wonders of nature; on smelling spices, or perfumes, or flowers; on eating fruit; on drinking wine; on hearing thunder; on seeing the sea; on seeing trees in blossom for the first time. And a blessing too on seeing a rainbow:
Blessed are You, our Living God, Sovereign of the Universe, You remember Your covenant and are faithful to it, and keep your promise.
Rabbi Howard Cooper is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in private practice, Director of Spiritual Development at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, and a writer. He is the author of The Alphabet of Paradise: An A-Z of Spirituality for Everyday Life and he blogs on Jewish issues and current affairs at www.howardcoopersblog.blogspot.com
Lead image credit: Štefan Štefančik
Rainbow image credit: Shawn Nystrand