The Rainbow and an Ethic of Sustainability

By Jonathan Neril

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And G-d said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I give between Me and you, and every living being that is with you, to generations forever; I have set My rainbow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth. And it shall happen, when I place a cloud over the earth, and the bow will be seen in the cloud, I will remember My covenant between Me and you and every living being among all flesh, and the water shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.” (Bereshit/Genesis 9:12-15, Artscroll Translation)

These critical verses conclude the narrative of the flood. In response to the corruption and immorality of Noach's (Noah's) generation, G-d told Noach to build an ark to save species from the impending flood that would wipe out all terrestrial life. Noach built the ark, brought the animals into it, and lived on it for the duration of the flood. He then sent a raven and afterward a dove to see whether the floodwater had subsided. After Noach left the ark and offered an offering, G-d made a covenant with Noach, telling him to reproduce, and giving him permission to eat meat. Finally, G-d established another covenant with Noach, designating the rainbow as the Creator's commitment not to destroy the world.

The Ramban (Nahmanides, 12th century Spain) teaches that the rainbow is signifies an upside-down bow and serves as “ a reminder of peace.” The feet of the rainbow are bent downward to show that the Heavenly 'shooting'–a.k.a the torrential rains—have ceased [1]. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin explains the meaning of the Ramban's teaching: “ancient cultures fought their wars with the bow and arrow, and the side which surrendered, pursuing peace instead of war, would express their will to do so by raising an inverted bow that the enemy could see. Similarly, G-d places an inverted bow in the heavens as a sign that He is no longer warring against humanity.[2]

Rabbi Riskin continues that the symbolism of the rainbow extends beyond G-d's commitment to encompass humans as well: “The rainbow is a half-picture, lacking a second half to complete the circle of wholeness. G-d can pledge not to destroy humanity, but since He created humanity with freedom of choice, He cannot guarantee that humanity will not destroy itself.[3]

The mystical tradition teaches that before creating this world, G-d created seven worlds and destroyed them.
[4] On many occasions the Creator destroyed the world He created. But not so this world. The rainbow testifies to the Creator's intention for life on our planet to continue to exist. It is a sign that G-d desires the existence of the world and not its destruction. This implies that the Creator does not want us to destroy His Creation either. G-d values the continuation of life on this planet.

The Ramban mentions that the rainbow is a reminder of G-d's attribute of mercy.[5].The Merciful One exercises restraint and refrains from destroying the world even though there may be reason to do so. Rabbi Moshe Cordovero teaches that people should emulate their Creator, especially His numerous attributes of Mercy.[6] Thus is it fitting for us to emulate G-d by exercising restraint and being merciful to the world G-d created.

In fact, G-d already made that clear to us from the beginning. As the Midrash on Ecclesiastes states, “When G-d created Adam, He took him and showed him all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him, “See my works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are. Everything that I created, I created for you. Be careful not to spoil or destroy my world—for if you do, there will be nobody after you to repair it." [7]

In our Torah portion, it is the Master of the World who intentionally destroys all terrestrial life by flooding the earth in response to human wickedness. Today, perhaps the greatest risk of humans destroying the world comes not from those with the intent to do so but rather from the collective,unintentional actions of billions of people. Scientists are telling us that our way of life is making war on nature, and will likely bring more flooding, tropical disease, severe storms, and intense hurricanes. In a sense, we are using the inverted bow to shoot carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, upending the balance that G-d for His part promised not to upset.

For the first time in human history, we now have the ability to destroy the world and all life on it. We may have no malicious intent, but our shortsightedness and selfishness can also destroy the world.[8]These two character traits manifest in the absence of spiritual refinement or awareness of the Divine. The environmental crisis thus reflects a spiritual crisis, and the appropriate response must include a spiritual reawakening.

Perhaps the rainbow itself can convey a spiritual message. In Hebrew, geshem (rain) is the root of gashmiut, which means materialism or physicality. That is because the abundance of the material world springs up due to the rain. A rainbow forms when droplets of moisture combine with light. This image of rain, being met with light from Above, can symbolize infusing our physical lives with spiritual light. This way of looking at the physical world can also help us be more responsible for what we have. One who sees the holy sparks within the physical will be more careful about how he or she uses them, trying to raise them up for their holy purpose. Relating to the physical in this way can reorient the way a person consumes and thereby impact their ecological footprint on the planet.

A similar message also emerges from the broader context of the Torah portion. Noach took responsibility for Creation, by building the ark, bringing the animals into it, taking care of them during the flood.[9] The Midrash teaches that Noach first sent a raven out of the ark to see if the floodwater had subsided. Being one of two ravens in the world, it argued with him, fearing it would die and then its species would be lost forever. G-d then told Noach to take the raven back into the ark.[10] Noach then sent the dove, of which seven were in existence. Thus Noach preserved the diversity of life on earth.

This, teaches Rabbi Sampson Rafael Hirsch, is a deeper meaning of the rainbow—to maintain a a world as diverse as G-d created it. He teaches that the colors of the rainbow emerge from white– “one pure complete ray of light, broken up into seven degrees of seven colors.” These colors are symbolic of different types of living beings—the 'red' ones seemingly closer to the light, the darker ones more distant. Yet “G-d unites them all together in one common bond of peace, all fragments of one life, all refracted rays of the one spirit of G-d, even the lowest, darkest, most distant one, still a son of the light."[11] Before meriting to receive the rainbow covenant, Noach obeys the Creator's will and preserves the species. His actions bring out a message shining from the rainbow, and serve as a model for us to take responsibility for the continuation of a living and livable planet.

The Zohar understands the rainbow at an even deeper level. It teaches that the rainbow represents the Shechina, the Creator's immanent Presence in this world, citing a verse from the prophet Ezekiel. He compares the rainbow to the glory of G-d: “Like the appearance of a bow that would be in the clouds on a rainy day…that was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of G-d."[12] The rainbow is a symbol for the Divine Presence on earth.

According to the Perush Ziv Zohar, the rainbow as a whole reminds us to turn our hearts to improve our actions.[13] In Israel, rainbows can first be seen soon after the end of the Rosh Hashana/Yom Kippur/Sukkot holidays, when the winter rains begin to fall. Perhaps the timing of the appearance of the rainbow, soon after the long period of tshuva/return, can motivate us to keep improving ourselves: to direct our energies to making this world a fitting place for the Shechina to dwell, being servants of the Creator and taking better care of Creation.

This year for Parshat Noach, Canfei Nesharim is joining with synagogues and organizations across the Jewish community to learn the lessons of Parshat Noach, and recommit our efforts to build a more sustainable world. May our actions and learning, working as a united Jewish community on an issue of great importance to the world, inspire us to renewed levels of sustainability and responsibility for Creation in the coming year.

Shabbat shalom!


Commentary to 9:12. He also explains that the rainbow shows that the bow has no rope upon which to bend the arrows. See also commentary of Rabbi Samphson Rafael Hirsch to 9:15.


Commentary on Parshat Noach, 5769. Rabbi Riskin is the Chief Rabbi of Efrat. Available online.


Ibid. A similar point is made by Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth, in his Address to The Lambeth Conference, July 28th ,2008 : available online.“The covenant of Noah is not a covenant of faith but a covenant of fate. G-d says: Never again will I destroy the world. But I cannot promise that you will never destroy the world — because I have given you free will. All I can do is teach you how not to destroy the world.”


Zohar, cited by Rabbi Erez Gazit in a class at Yeshivat Bat Ayin, spring 2008


Commentary to 9:12. See also as Pesikta Zutra as cited in Otzar Hamidrashim to v. 16 on the Trait of Judgment above and below, and the latter being softer.


The Palm Tree of Devorah, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, translated by Rabbi Moshe Miller, Targum Press, Southfield, Michigan, 1993, p. 2


Midrash Kohelet Raba, 7:13. The Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Yona Metzger, said that a literal reading of this Midrash is possible, that it is referring to not destroying the environment. Dvar Torah given at Conference on Torah and the Environment at Jerusalem City Hall, July 2008.


For more on this topic and Torah sources that teach us to avoid this, see our teaching onParshat Naso


For more on this, see “A Paradigm for Environmental Consciousness” by Shimshon Stuart Siegel.


Midrash Rabbah – Genesis 38:4. See also Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 108b


The Pentateuch, vol. 1: Genesis, translated and explained by Samson Raphael Hirsch. Rendered into English by Isaac Levy from the original German, Judaica Press, Gateshead, England, 1989. To Genesis 9:15, p. 182


Ezekiel 1:28, Artscroll translation. See Zohar 18b, 71b, and 72b and footnotes 214 and 613 in Pritzker edition. Keshet (rainbow) is a feminine noun and the Torah's mention of G-d seeing 'it' (feminine) hints at the Shechina. The Midrash Raba 35:3 teaches that the language of keshet (rainbow) signifies something that is 'mukash' or similar to Me, i.e. in some way similar to G-d's 'image.'


Footnote 43 to Zohar Noach 72b. In a similar light, the Sefat Emet teaches based on the Zohar that everything depends on the groundswell from below [of people] to reveal the colors in Heaven, referring to a Supernal rainbow that will appear at a time when the Divine Presence is more fully manifested. The Seforno to 9:17 understands the double rainbow as a wakeup call for Noach and his family “to [spiritually] wake up in seeing it, and to awaken the people of the generation to repent, to be wise, and to do good.” The Sages in several places caution against staring at the rainbow, based on a mystical understanding of the rainbow's significance.

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