I have set My bow in the clouds, and it shall serve as a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth, and the bow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between Me and you and every living creature among all flesh, so that the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. -Genesis 9:13-15
Praised are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who remembers the covenant and keeps His word. -Traditional blessing upon seeing a rainbow.
This past Shabbat the Torah reading was the story of Noah. The other day I walked the dog, as usual, at 6:30 in the morning. It was a perfect early winter morning, ambivalent would this be a rainy day or a sunny one? Or more likely, both... Delicate pink wild crocuses had popped up here and there after a couple of days of off-and-on showers. It was, finally, cool enough for long sleeves. Looking out to the west from our mountainside, toward Haifa Bay, cumulus clouds swept across the sky. The sun was rising behind the mountain to our east, so that I could not yet see it directly, but its rays illuminated the clouds spread in front of me to the west, spotlighting the village of Sha'ab in the foreground and Haifa on the horizon. The air was fresh and rain-washed, clear enough for me to make out the individual buildings on the slopes of Mt. Carmel in Haifa, and the ships anchored in the bright blue water of the bay. It was a morning of promise.
The valley floor below is a large expanse of olive trees belonging to the families of Sha'ab. The beginning of the rainy season is the time of the olive harvest, and now that Ramadan is over, we expect to see Arab families out beating the trees over plastic tarps spread to collect the fruit. However, for reasons I don't understand, olives produce in a two year cycle one year plentiful, one year very sparse and this is an off-year. And indeed, the trees are rich in foliage, but the olives are few and far between. So the families are not rushing to start the harvest, as it will be brief.
I noticed off to the west some areas of gray that must have been local showers and then, over the suburbs of Haifa, a shaft of sunlight broke through the clouds with an incandescent glow that quickly diffracted into the full spectrum a bright column of vertical rainbow. Conditions like this are not uncommon in this valley in the early morning: the sun's rays projecting horizontally down the valley, encountering scattered showers. Early morning walkers are thus often rewarded with a rainbow experience sometimes seeming to rise from Sha'ab, sometimes from farther to the west, towards Haifa and the sea. There is something about the experience that has a spiritual resonance. I do sort of understand diffraction, so I know there's no miracle here. And yet, there is something about the combination of rain and sun and glowing color that gives me goosebumps. Maybe part of the effect is that rainbows never occur when it is completely overcast they require just the right mix of sun and rain, so they symbolize optimism. Just as the purity and whiteness of a fresh snowfall makes people who live in colder climates feel good despite all the inconvenience and even danger that will result later, so here too we are saved from despair in winter by the glow of the rainbow.
And then I came home to the morning paper, to a Palestinian teenager killed by Israeli soldiers because they thought his plastic gun was real (why was he carrying a plastic gun?), to ethnic riots sweeping France, to an overwhelming list of injustices and perceived injustices generating violence at home and abroad. I couldnt help thinking of the midrash that made its way into an Afro-American folk song and from there to James Baldwin: God gave Noah the rainbow sign: no more water, the fire next time.