The significance of the rainbow

By Cantor Sheri Allen
Parashat Noach

I admit, I’m not the most observant when it comes to the great outdoors. I do appreciate a beautiful day or a fabulous sunset, but I’ve never really “communed” with nature, so to speak, and I’ve killed almost every plant that I’ve ever owned. Except the cyclamen, which sounds like an antibiotic and perhaps is fortified with one in order to survive my care.

One of nature’s (or should I say G-d’s) miracles which has always managed to stop me in my tracks, however, is the rainbow. Perhaps it’s because the rainbow only appears rarely, when the conditions are just right, and fades so quickly. But if you are lucky enough to catch a glimpse of one and sometimes a double rainbow, it’s simply breathtaking. Our ancestors agreed, as there is a special blessing we say upon seeing a rainbow: “Baruch Atah Adonai, Elokeinu Melech ha-olam, zocher ha-brit v’ne-emar bivrito, v’kayam b’ma-a-maro: Blessed are You, Adonai our G-d, Ruler of the universe, who remembers the Covenant and is faithful to it, and keeps his promise.”

We read about that promise in Parashat Noach. We’re only up to the second parashah of the year, and a lot of ground has been covered — literally — with water. It has taken only 10 generations for humankind to become so morally bankrupt that G-d decides to scrap it all and begin again. And He chooses Noach and his family to be the lone survivors, whose responsibility it will be to repopulate the earth after the flood that G-d sends to destroy it. After the flood subsides and G-d commands him to come out of the ark, Noach builds an altar and makes sacrifices to G-d. According to the Torah, when G-d smells the “pleasing odor” of the sacrifice, G-d is pleased, and promises (Genesis 1:16-17), “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between G-d and all living creatures, all flesh that is on earth. That, G-d said to Noach, shall be the sign of the covenant that I have established between Me and all flesh that is on earth.”

No wonder so many different cultures and movements have embraced the rainbow flag as their own symbol of diversity, tolerance, forgiveness and compassion. When the International Cooperative Congress of World Co-op leaders convened in Basel Switzerland in 1921, they adopted a seven-colored rainbow flag as a symbol of “unity in diversity and the power of light, enlightenment and progress.” When the peace movement in Italy was born in 1961, a seven-colored rainbow flag with the word “pace” (Italian for peace) written in the middle was embraced as their own.

Perhaps the most internationally well-known rainbow flag is the Pride flag of the LGBTQIA community, also known as “the freedom flag.” San Francisco artist Gilbert Baker designed the flag in 1978 for the annual San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Pride parade, but the flag as a symbol of diversity and equality became even more significant after the tragic assassination of Harvey Milk, the city’s first openly gay supervisor, as it was used in the march to honor his memory. Originally designed with eight colors, including pink and turquoise, the flag now displays six colors: red for life, orange for healing, yellow for the sun, green for nature, blue for art or harmony, and purple/violet for spirit. Some rainbow flags also sport brown and black stripes, to acknowledge LGBTQ communities of color. It is also now recognized by the International Congress of Flag Makers. Each color is separate and distinct, contributing its own worth and meaning, and yet the true significance of the rainbow can only be appreciated when all the colors meld within the arc. Just as each one of us is unique, when we all come together in a harmonious blend of color, we create a vision that is indescribably beautiful. And the bow, which in ancient times was used as a weapon of destruction, is now fixed dramatically in the sky facing upward toward the heavens, fostering a message of peace and, ultimately, hope.

The next time that we may be a bit too quick to rush to judgment of others, or too impatient to cling to stereotypes instead of being open to learning and embracing that which may simply be unfamiliar to us, let us conjure up the spectacular vision of the rainbow. May it lead us to a deeper understanding of what makes each of us special and unite us in our journey toward fostering true peace in this world.

Sheri Allen is the cantor of Congregation Beth Shalom in Arlington.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Karen Johnson

    Beautiful commentary Cantor Allen. Thank you!

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