The weekly Torah portion we are about to read includes the well known story of Noah and the ark. It is a story about a generation so evil that God decides it warrants destruction. It is also a story about God’s care and concern for mankind, as he protects Noah, his family, and representatives of all the animals.
In the past few weeks, some of my clinical work has prompted my thinking about questions of protection, belief and worry. I saw one child, who since a horrific and well publicized kidnapping and murder of a child has repeatedly asked teachers and parents for reassurance. When they reply that they will protect him, he responds that the murdered child had parents and teachers who promised the same, to no avail. Another child saw an Alice in Wonderland cartoon and is now constantly asking her mom if her food can change her into something else, make her tiny or large beyond belief.
I would usually think of these children in psychological terms, what are their symptoms, what treatments will work. Having recently finished the holiday of Sukkot, a time when Jews demonstrate their faith in God’s care for them by leaving their comfortable homes and eating and living in temporary “booths” or sukkot, I thought of the struggle of these children as a problem of faith – what can help them believe and experience reassurance? What is it that allows us to feel protected?
One answer may come from the rainbow in this week’s Torah reading. After God shelters Noah and his family through the flood – he creates an eternal sign that he will forever save mankind – no matter how evil or debased it may become:
“Then G-d said, this is the sign of the covenant which I give between Me and you and every living creature that is with you for the generations of all time. My bow I have set it in the cloud and it shall now be for a sign of a covenant between Me and the earth.”
Rainbows are seen as so significant an occurrence, that on seeing one, Jewish people recite a blessing:
“Blessed are you, Our God, King of the World, who remembers his covenant, is faithful to his covenant and keeps his promise.”
Obviously, God doesn’t need a rainbow as a reminder, the rainbow is a reminder to the world that there is enough wickedness to warrant its destruction, and if not for God’s oath, it would be destroyed (Perush Hatefillot by Rebeinu Yehuda Bar Yakar). A rainbow, can therefore – both serve to buttress our faith, our Emunah – i.e. reinforce our sense that God will eternally protect us AND cause distress. Distress, since the sages agree that a rainbow signals that without God’s promise, the wickedness that was demonstrated at that moment, would certainly have caused the world to be
Despite the fact that seeing a rainbow presents an opportunity to acknowledge God’s hand in our world, Jewish texts like the Mishnah Brura and the Gemara caution how we should respond to the occurrence of rainbows. The Mishnah Brura and Chayai Adam agree we should not tell others to look at a rainbow, because it is spreading lashon hara or a bad report – since the rainbow indicates that somewhere, someone was engaged in evil doing. Torah Ladaas agrees, even while acknowledging that telling another could provide them with an opportunity to say a blessing. Dissenting opinions come from the Bris Cohunah and Yalkut Yosef by Ovadia Yosef – who says a Jewish person can tell a fellow Jew to look at a rainbow, because that would allow him to make a blessing, in particular a blessing that is an acknowledgement of God’s kindness, something we should be happy to acknowledge and share with others. Ovadia Yosef also suggests that conveying the information – which includes the assumption that evil is
currently occurring in the world, could actually help people reflect on their own actions, and repent their personal evil-doings or mistakes.
In addition to issues about telling others there is concern among early Rabbinic authorities about whether and how one should look at rainbows. The rainbow is associated with the Shechinat Hashem - the essence of God (Yehezkel, 1:18), which one can and should not look intensely upon. The Gemara (Chagiga, Daf 16a) warns not to look too long at rainbows, the High Priest, the King, or the Ruler, all of whom are representative of God’s essence or presence. Many Rabbinic sources therefore suggest looking at the rainbow briefly, making the appropriate blessing, but not engaging in long or involved staring.
Thinking about this, and some differences between Noah and Abraham helped me understand my seemingly inconsolable young patients. Rabbi Aron Tendler writes that both Noah and Abraham were charged with influencing their generations. Noah failed, where Abraham succeeded. Rabbi Tendler suggests that Noach was a doomsayer, while Abraham taught optimism. Noah focused on punishment, Abraham “enveloped people with love, acceptance and reward”. I can imagine Noah gazing carefully at rainbows and thinking of the evil remaining in the world, while Abraham in a quick glance perceived God’s eternal care, kindness and protection of mankind.
There are issues of science for which we demand critical, careful and sometimes even cynical examination, and issues of faith, where we need to use a different approach. My young patients convince me that we need to teach children to refrain from giving too much focus or investing too much energy in looking for the world’s dangers and evils. We, too, the adults in their world, need to bring them comfort and reassurance through the example of Abraham, with positives and compassion, limiting our doom and gloom cautions. I am convinced that when we help children experience, with a quick glance at rainbows, and the myriad other evidences of God’s role in our world, faith results and offers comfort and reassurance beyond words.