In My Own Words: The meaning of the rainbow

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

We read and study the Torah each year because every year we can discover new insights or new ways to appreciate the text. Sometimes that study informs our ideas outside of the study group or synagogue. When looking at the story of Noah recently, something interesting and different occurred. (Those less interested in the biblical text itself can skip the next few paragraphs and read below those how this portion can relate to contemporary times.) 

Rabbi Barbara Goldman-Wartell, spiritual leader of Temple Concord, used a source sheet from Sefaria by Rabbi Batsheva Appel to stimulate our conversation at Torah study. The sections I found most interesting talked about the rainbow God created after the flood as if it were a warning, rather than a sign of safety. This reasoning says that the rainbow is to remind humans to behave and follow God’s laws. In particular, Appel features comments from Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno (commonly known as just Sforno), who lived from roughly 1475-1550. 

Sforno writes that, in the Babylonian Talmud (Ketubot 77), “the very appearance of the rainbow is a reminder that the generation in which it appears is a guilty generation. It is reported there that two generations were fortunate enough that in their time no rainbow was observed. This was interpreted as a sign that the people of that generation did not need the phenomenon of the rainbow to alert them to become penitents.”

Why did this stand out? Because it seems there were more rainbows this summer than usual. I didn’t see all of them myself, but people regularly posted pictures of rainbows on Facebook so I know when I missed one. Actually, there were not just rainbows, but double rainbows. If they are supposed to be a sign, then it’s clear we’ve been given one.

However, it then occurred to me that each side of the political divide could claim that this sign was God’s way of saying they were correct and the other side was wrong, or even evil. That’s what’s been happening in American politics: Instead of each side saying the other side has a legitimate, but different, opinion, they are being demonized. So, maybe the rainbows are not saying either side is right. Maybe the rainbows are saying the division and hate in our country is wrong.

I’m not suggesting that every opinion is equal: any opinion that calls for the death of opponents or which seeks to overthrow our democracy is simply wrong. As Jews, we need to be very wary of radicals on both sides. Antisemitism is once again on the rise: from celebrities to sports fans to politicians, it’s open season on Jews. Some might say the rainbows are a sign that it’s time to pack our bags again and search for safer shores. I don’t think it’s come to that, but I can’t promise they are wrong.

Will seeing a rainbow now cause me to worry about the future, rather than offering a sense of awe about the glory of the universe? I hope not, but whether the rainbow offers a warning or a false sense of security is yet to be determined.