(photo credit: Israel Weiss)
‘Of the fowl after their kind, and of the cattle after their kind, of every
creeping thing of the ground after its kind, two of every sort shall come unto
thee, to keep them alive’ (Noah; Genesis 6:20)
The rainbow is the symbol of the very first covenant entered into by God. It is
the sign of God’s covenant with the earth and with all of humanity. Noah, after
all, was the second Adam, from whom all of humanity would now emerge. And God’s
covenant is His guarantee “that the waters shall never again become a flood to
destroy all flesh.”
What is the symbolic significance of this rainbow?
How does this particular object in the sky – which apparently existed before God
entered into the covenant and was now to become an expression of God’s new
agreement with “all flesh that is on the earth,” express this Divine covenant?
The Ramban (Nahmanides, 1194-1270) suggests that the rainbow in the sky is an
Ancient warfare was fought with bows and arrows; when one
side was ready to surrender, they would lift up an inverted bow, much as the
white flag is a symbol of surrender today. The Ramban explains that the inverted
bow in the skies is God’s statement that He will never again send a flood or any
other scourge from the heavens in order to destroy the flesh of the
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) provides what I believe is
an even more profound symbolism.
He explains that when one looks at a
rainbow, one sees seven magnificent hues or colors: red, orange, yellow, green,
blue, indigo and violet. But there are not really those seven colors within the
rainbow itself. When the rays of the sun touch the rain clouds – which are white
– the refracted light which emanates from the rays appear to be these seven
different glorious colors; in truth, however, the color is the white of the
cloud and what we see are the virtual colors of the refracted light.
phenomenon is a metaphor for the human race. People appear in many different
colors: white, yellow, red, brown and black. However, if we could look
metaphysically within the human being, every one of us has the exact same color:
the color of the Divine Image which informs and inspirits each and every one of
In order to truly understand the symbolism, we must realize that the
rainbow is at best a half-symbol; the complete symbol would be a whole circle,
comprising two halves together. Rabbi Hirsch would maintain that God chooses
this half-symbol because He can only guarantee that He will not destroy the
world; He cannot guarantee that the world will not destroy itself.
immediately before God presents the symbol of the rainbow, God permits human
beings to eat animal flesh, but stipulates very clear limitations: “You must not
however eat the flesh or the blood of a living animal. You may not take your own
life... or the life of any other human being. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by
man shall his blood be shed; this is because God made man in His own image”
I have previously explained that a covenant is a two-way
street, an agreement with the Divine which obligates the people as well as the
Divine. Such was the covenant with Abraham “Between the Pieces” (Genesis 15) and
so was the covenant at Sinai. Here too God obligates Himself not to destroy the
world, but He also obligates humanity not to destroy itself.
Many of our
traditional Jewish commentaries link these three laws to the Seven Noahide Laws
of universal morality to which God obligates Noah and all human
Tragically, humanity does not live up to these Seven Laws. The 10
generations between Noah and Abraham proved to be disastrous for human history,
with the debauchery of Sodom and Gomorrah setting the stage for human conduct.
The Almighty (as it were) takes a new turn. He decides that he must deal with
one specific nation – or rather one individual who will become a specific nation
– rather than with all of humanity at once. He will deal with Abraham, who has
already discovered God and His compassionate righteousness and moral justice on
his own (Maimonides, Laws of Idolatry, chapter 1).
He will build Abraham
into a strong nation which will become “a blessing to all the families of the
earth,” “a sacred nation and a kingdom of priests/teachers to all of humanity”
(Genesis 12:3, Exodus 19:6, Sforno ad loc).
This is our Divine charge
which will only be realized through a long historical process of transmitting
our narrative from generation to generation. The true meaning of Zionism is the
creation of the nation-state of Israel, which will serve as a beacon of peace,
lighting the pathway to God for all the nations of the world.The writer
is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs,
and chief rabbi of Efrat.