There is nothing miraculous about a rainbow. Its colorful beauty
derives from a simple natural phenomenon called refraction. Little
droplets of water suspended in the air near a waterfall or after a rainfall
capture and bend rays of sunlight in varying degrees. The result is a
colorful prism effect.
In this week’s Torah portion, however, we find the rainbow in a
rather unusual role. The entire civilization of the world becomes corrupt,
and Hashem decides to destroy it with a Great Flood. The heavens
above and the abyss below crack open, and solid torrents of water spew
forth and inundate all the settlements of civilization. Only Noah, his
family and an arkful of animals and birds survive the deluge. In the
aftermath, Hashem vows never again to send a Flood to wipe out
civilization. And he gives a sign. The rainbow!
Why the rainbow? What is so remarkable about the rainbow that it
should become the symbol of the continuity of civilization?
If we look carefully at the chronicles of the generations before the
Flood and after, we notice a very sharp drop in human longevity. Before
the Flood, the average life span seems to have been well into the
hundreds of years, and the quality of life was excellent; good health and
prosperity were the norm. After the Flood, however, life expectancy
declined, and by Abraham’s time, it seems to have been about one
hundred years. Why?
The commentators explain that before the Flood the role of
humanity was to serve as the passive receptacle of divine beneficence.
People were not required to make any effort. All they had to do was
accept what was given to them. The result was a great flow of
spirituality and divine vitality which blessed humanity with extraordinary
longevity, health and prosperity. But at the same time, it made for a
static society. People did not have the need or the ability to create or
improvise or pursue new horizons and modes of thought. Therefore,
when society was corrupted and the flow of divine grace was
interrupted, humanity did not have the ability to renew itself and thereby
After the Flood, however, a new dynamic took effect. Henceforth,
humanity had both the need and the ability to take an active role in
channeling divine grace from Above. The need to participate reduced
the flow of divine grace and resulted in a diminished quality of life. But
at the same time, people could be creative and adapt, and therefore,
there was always the potential for self-renewal. Even if society should
become corrupted, it would always be able to find its way back to the
The rainbow is the symbol of this active participation. The little
droplets of water accept the light rays that stream down from the sky,
and they focus and channel the light in such a way as to reveal the
plethora of brilliant colors intrinsic to every ray of sunlight. The rainbow
is the paradigm for the new role of humanity which would ensure the
continued existence of civilization.
A young man returned to visit the sage with whom he had studied
for many years. He had been one of the sage’s most brilliant disciples
yet he was failure in life. Another young disciple, who had not been
nearly as brilliant, however, had gone on to great triumphs and
“Why has he done better than I have?” the young man asked. “After
all, I was clearly more talented.”
“Indeed you were,” said the sage. “You absorbed every word I
spoke and understood it thoroughly. But you never developed the ability
to think on your own. Therefore, once you left me you were lost. The
other fellow, however, though not as brilliant as you, learned to take
what I taught and adapt it. That is a formula for success.”
In our own lives, we can transform our very existence if we would
only view ourselves as the active participants in directing the flow of
divine beneficence into the world. We are all endowed with special
qualities and strengths which can be used for the good, if only we would
acknowledge and develop them. In the end, we will surely discover that
the privilege of acting as a conduit for divine beneficence is the most
enriching grace of all.
Text Copyright © 2011 by Rabbi Naftali Reich and Torah.org.
Rabbi Reich is on the faculty of the Ohr Somayach Tanenbaum Education Center.