On October 29, 1972, I attended a dazzling afternoon concert at Carnegie Hall. As I headed for home on the 59th Street Bridge, traffic came to a standstill. I suspected a car accident was to blame. But the conspicuous absence of angry car horns — not to mention the reverent expressions on my fellow commuters’ faces — suggested otherwise. And that’s when I saw it: a vivid double rainbow traversing the bridge.
In the almost half-century that has since transpired, neither the concert nor the rainbow has faded from my memory. What I wish would disappear is a brief interchange I shared with my father in their aftermath.
“A perfect ending to a perfect day!” I had enthused.
“Not exactly,” my father replied, a smile both gentle and sad on his face. A Talmudic scholar, he explained that a rainbow is a sign of God’s anger with humankind.
I was baffled. How could something so beautiful indicate Divine displeasure? Two weeks earlier, synagogue services around the globe had featured the saga of Noah and the ark, culminating in God’s covenant that He would never again send a flood to destroy His world. The symbol of that covenant? The rainbow:
“I have placed my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between Me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember My covenant between Me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life.” (Genesis 9:13-15)
I began exploring rabbinic sources upon which my father had based his sobering news. Rashi commented that only in the lifetimes of two saintly individuals (King Chizkiyahu and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai), a rainbow never appeared; their righteousness had made the rainbow’s message unnecessary. The Chayei Adam ruled that one shouldn’t tell a friend one has seen a rainbow because it’s wrong to slander humanity. Sforno summed it up perfectly: The rainbow warns us that the only thing stopping God from unleashing another life-decimating flood is His pledge not to.
Eventually, I grasped why rainbow sightings saddened our Sages, millennia after Noah’s lifetime. But right after describing God’s rainbow covenant, presumably bestowed before the flood’s survivors could have sinned, the Bible relates how Noah disintegrated, descending into a drunken stupor.
For years, I couldn’t fathom why that very first rainbow precipitated Noah’s demise. One would think that this symbol of God’s reassurance would have filled him with tranquility.
Perhaps the answer to this paradox lies in the two symbols that serve as parentheses to Noah’s life: the ark and the arc.
Throughout the 120 years in which he meticulously built his ark, secure in the knowledge that his family would be spared annihilation, Noah did nothing to convince the world’s corrupt inhabitants to mend their ways. It occurred to me that the seven Noahide laws include six prohibitions, such as don’t kill, but make only one mention of the proactive: to establish laws. Nowhere is there a call to live a life of kindness, of love. True, Noah followed every Divine command but not once did he beg God to rescind His decree.
Particularly telling is the ark’s finishing touch: the tzohar. Commentaries differ on the word’s meaning. Some say it was a window; others, a sparkling jewel. All agree that it was a source of light. As for me, I think that Noah opted for a jewel to illuminate the ark’s interior. A window on the world would have punctured his floating cocoon.
I can imagine Noah’s anguish when his journey ended. Fixating on the ark for over a century, he suddenly was confronted by a new symbol: an arc. Perhaps it felt like an accusation, as if God were saying, “Rejecting evil is not enough. A self-contained ark is not enough. If My world’s occupants are to endure, the rainbow’s arc — expansive and embrace-like — is what they need to imitate.”
Nowadays, whenever I spot a rainbow, I recite the Rabbis’ blessing (“Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who remembers the covenant, is trustworthy in His covenant, and keeps His word”) and add this coda: Lord, if — like Noah — I enclose myself in an ark of self-interest, help me remember that it is never too late to emulate Your heavenly arc’s open-armed embrace. Help me remember that Your arc is my ark’s antidote.
Chava Willig Levy is a New York-based writer, editor, advocate and lecturer who zips around in a motorized wheelchair and communicates about the quality and meaning of life. Her memoir, A Life Not with Standing, was published in 2013.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.