I was crossing the Heath last week when, unexpectedly, I saw a double rainbow. I didn’t just recall Wordsworth’s poem; I experienced it:
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man…
I looked around and saw that everyone seemed to feel the same: a moment of wonder embraced us. Even the dogs were lolloping more lightly.
I remembered the brachah too:
Blessed are You, our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who remembers and keeps faith with his covenant and is true to his word.
It was a marvellous way to begin the week of Noah, about whom we read in the Torah tomorrow. After the mass devastation of the flood, God promises never again to destroy life, making the rainbow the symbol of this, the first and most comprehensive pact in the Bible.
The rainbow is one of humanity’s most enduring and versatile symbols. Look online and you can see what it means in virtually every culture.
I’m moved by what it signifies today. I hear in my mind Archbishop Desmond Tutu speaking with courageous pride about South Africa, ‘the rainbow nation’. Of course, the rainbow is the symbol of Pride itself. A YouTube video explains how each colour expresses a different quality: life, nature, serenity and healing. Keshet, ‘rainbow’ in Hebrew, is the name of UK Jewish organisation working for LGBT+ inclusion.
During lockdown, the rainbow has become an international symbol of solidarity and hope. I’m cheered whenever I see on windows, placards and even in the middle of roundabouts: the colours embracing NHS, or words of gratitude to those who dedicate themselves to our society.
Last, and definitely least, there’s a ‘somewhere over the rainbow’ page on a site about household pets, where you can record the name and endearing qualities of your late lamented guinea pigs.
The rainbow has a profound and complex history in Judaism. On Rosh Hashanah, Yom HaZikaron, the Day of Remembrance and judgement over all life, the rainbow is the first covenant we mention: ‘God remembered Noah and all the animals with him in the ark’. Nachmanides notes that keshet is an archer’s bow, but as a rainbow it is inverted to indicate that God will not shoot arrows of anger, but instead send healing to the earth.
More puzzling is the Talmud’s warning not to gaze at rainbows because this shows a lack of respect for God’s glory. This derives from Ezekiel’s description comparing ‘the appearance of the rainbow in the clouds’ to ‘the appearance of the brightness round about the likeness of God’s glory.’ (Ezekiel 1:28). Rabbi Isaac de Trani offers a moving explanation: every person experiences the sacred in different ways and the divine in different shades. We should not attempt to fathom the depth and richness of the spirit.
I’m struck as we begin One World Week by what these interpretations have in common: the rainbow represents the ability to see beyond the self and value existence in all its wealth of forms and colours. Only the capacity to value and care for life in this comprehensive manner can save us from destruction.
Or perhaps it’s all much simpler: rainbows are just beautiful and that makes us feel happy.