“Why are there so many songs about rainbows, and what’s on the other side? Rainbows are visions, but only illusions, and rainbows have nothing to hide.” These words, made famous by Kermit the Frog, run through my head each year as we read parashat Noach.
The rainbow has so many meanings. At first consideration, the rainbow represents happiness, harmony and peace as it decorates bedrooms, as children depict it in their earliest drawings, and as a wonder of nature when it appears in the sky after a rainstorm.
These days, the rainbow also stands for the support of those members of our community who identify as Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (GLBTQ). We want each person to know that they are not alone, that our congregations are safe and sacred places for each of us. This same rainbow reminds us that we still have work to do to create a world that is truly inclusive.
And what about in our text? This week we encounter the rainbow for the first time. The Hebrew word for this sign is keshet, bow, and it becomes the symbol that will remind God never again to destroy the world. The keshet, rather than descending from the sky to the ground, originates on earth and ascends to the heavens. Perhaps this was a sign that no more destruction would fall from the sky toward the inhabitants of the earth.
We are taught that God chose something that already existed in nature to serve as the symbol of the covenant. Rather than creating something new, God chooses something that is already part of the natural order, something that cannot be removed, as a reminder of God’s promise to us.
The keshet is God’s reminder about God’s covenant with all living things. God says: I have set my bow in the clouds as a sign of our brit, of our covenant. Whenever clouds give way to this bow I will remember our covenant. Notice that keshet, though often called a rainbow in this Torah portion because of what we call a bow in the sky, is translated literally just as a bow.
This is the same bow that makes the other half of the couplet with the arrow, bow and arrow. In our portion it is used to refer to the rainbow, a symbol of peace, of relationship, and the promise of the end of destruction. But with only one exception, every other time it is used in the Bible it is used to refer to a bow — that which shoots the arrow to acquire food, to hurt another, or to cause destruction.
How can something be both a rainbow and a bow that shoots arrows? A symbol of peace and of destruction? An instrument of war but also the sign that marks the new beginning, the sacred embedded in all of creation?
These are just some of the questions we consider this week, when we reconnect with this story of origin, this recreation, God’s promise to us to remember and protect our brit, our relationship. Think about the people in your life that you know best. We know what makes them tick, what matters most to them. We know how to calm them down when they are upset or how to celebrate with them when they are happy.
We also know that all of these intimacies can be used destructively if we are not careful. Letting someone into our lives is a blessing but also a responsibility. The stories and the secrets that we share are part of the way we communicate our trust. Unfortunately they can also be the weapons we use to hurt one another if we are angry or careless.
Perhaps this is the reason that God chooses a bow for God’s own reminder of the covenant. It comes into our life and our relationship with God as something beautiful and sacred, something that reminds us of each other each time it appears in the sky. But, if we are not careful, it can easily be used destructively — to pierce the hearts of those we love.
This keshet extends from the earth to the heavens — both parties must guard our ends, protect this bow, and ensure that it is used for peace. Perhaps this is why there are so many songs about rainbows — beautiful and hanging in the balance, the rainbow requires our attention and our awe. We must approach the rainbow, each time we see it, as if it is the very first time we have encountered something so magnificent.
Even though there are countless instances of keshet as weapon, perhaps because there so many more instances where keshet is used to cause destruction and not peace, we are called to embrace the rainbow as God’s promise to honor creation and the sacred power of relationships. Let each of us promise never to turn something divine into something destructive. And let us remember and recite the blessing to be said each and every time we see a rainbow: Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Creator of all, who remembers the covenant, is faithful to God’s covenant, and keeps this sacred promise.