Rainbow Sign: From the Story of the Flood, Learning to Heal Our Planet

[This is a passage from my book GODWRESTLING -- ROUND 2 (Jewish Lights, 2001).  The book and its description of the work was published almost 20 years after much of the work itself took place in the early 1980s while facing the danger of world nuclear holocaust. The midrashic thinking set forth applies as well to the danger of "global scorching" in the climate crisis. See the end of this essay for a way of receiving the book.]

Rainbow Sign

The greatest physical danger that we faced was the one we shared with all the other peoples and perhaps all other species: the nuclear peril. So we turned to Torah: Could it speak to this unprecedented question? Instantly, a passage leaped out that we had treated as merely a children’s fairy tale: the story of the Flood, of Noah and the Ark and the Rainbow -- the only Biblical story in which the death of not just the human race but of all life on earth is put at issue. Fairy tale no longer.

How strange: In one of the most archaic levels of the Torah there emerges this story that spoke to the newest, most unprecedented issue of our lives! Or perhaps not quite so strange? Perhaps it was precisely the archaic and archetypal quality of Torah that made it so present in a crisis?

So we began to study the story of the Flood. Since I was now publishing and editing a journal called Menorah: Sparks of Jewish Renewal that reached Jewish seekers all across North America, we were able to spark this Torah-study not in one havurah alone, but in many clusters of Jewish thought.

Floods of New Midrash

The story recounts that violence, corruption, ruin were rampant on the earth. God, seeing that the human imagination was drawn toward evil, determined to destroy all life, except for one human family led by Noah, and one pair of every species. God rained death on every being except those who took refuge with Noah on the Ark. One year later, the waters subsided so that these refugees could emerge. And then God, though explicitly asserting once again that the human imagination is drawn toward evil, took an almost opposite tack: God promised that the cycles of life would never be destroyed again, insisted that new rules of behavior must govern human action in the future, and gave the Rainbow as a sign of this covenant.

This is perhaps the Bible's first explicit midrash, placed in God's Own mouth: God quotes an earlier teaching and then gives it a twirl in a new dorection. Why is the twirl necessary? Because after the first teaching, sxomething dreadful has happened: a Global Holocaust. The older text must not be annulled or ignored; but in a transformed world, the meaning of the text must be transformed.

As we wrestled with the story, what first leaped out at us was that human acts had propelled God into action. “God” here plays the role of karma: “Whatever you sow, that’s what you reap.” Old images of a vengeful, punitive God gave way to the concern that we were bringing disaster on our own heads. If all life is, in fact, connected, then walling ourselves off from the weave of life-breath was bound to cut us off from our own breathing.

When we looked at what to do, one aspect of the story seemed a not-so-obvious teaching: Noah is no expert. He is not an expert on rain, or ships, or animals. He is simply a righteous person. Some of the Rabbinic commentators on the Bible conclude that he is not even extraordinarily righteous. After all, they point out, when God threatened to destroy two cities, Abraham protested; when God threatened to wipe out one people, Moses intervened. Noah, warned that a whole world was in peril, held his tongue. Righteous? Middling righteous, compared to those around him.

Nowadays, some say that to deal with the danger of thermonuclear extinction or global pollution, one must be an expert in nuclear physics or global climate, in military strategy or diplomacy, in biology or economics, in social psychology or ecology. But the Noah story teaches that when all life is in danger, any of us who regard ourselves as simply reasonably decent people "middling righteous" are obligated to act.

What must Noah and his family do? They must preserve all life. The first "species preservation act" turns out to be not the one passed by the United States Congress in 1977; it is the command of God to Noah.

If the two-by-two procession of all species onto the Ark bespoke the Species Preservation Act, then the Flood betokened not a single weapons system alone but a flood of new technologies that were endangering the earth: a rain of H bombs, yes -- and also the burning and slashing of great forests, the choking of our air with carbon dioxide and our ozone layer with chlorofluorocarbons, the poisoning of our seas with oil and gasoline.

Indeed, one rabbinic commentary on the story raises the question whether the Torah may view one form of human intervention in the environment as even more dangerous than the nuclear peril. The rabbis usually believed that the universe is built on “measure for measure”: God’s rewards and punishments fit our action. So the rabbis asked, “Since the purging of the earth came through water, what was being wrongly done through water?” And they answered that before the Flood, all the species were mixing the water of their semen with each other. This water washed away all biological boundaries, confounding the clarity of God’s creation; so God sent a Flood of water to wash away all boundaries.

Today we know that few species can mix together and propagate in this way. But we have also invented “genetic recombination,” by which indeed the genes of one species can be introduced inside the DNA of another. Should we take the fantasy of the rabbis as a warning to explore this new technology with the greatest care, if at all, lest we bring upon ourselves a global disaster?

The Flood of Fire

But I am leaping ahead of the story of how we wrestled with this story. Let me return to our original question: how do we prevent a thermonuclear war? As we puzzled over the story, we noticed that it never uses the category, the imagery, of "war." Why not?

The human race is used to war. We know, from thousands of years of history, how to live with wars of “us” against “them.” All wars have “winners” and “losers.” Most of the time, the “winners” are those who have more powerful weapons. So if we are thinking “war,” an arms race makes sense. We choose to enter a war depending on whether we can win something important — ideally, on whether it seems “just,” reasonably proportioned to decent goals of defense or liberation.

It is hard, within that whole structure of thought, to come to grips with several peculiar questions:

• What kind of “war” has no survivors, and therefore no winners or losers?

• In what kind of “war” are justice and injustice irrelevant because the human community to which they belong may disappear?

• What is a “weapon” with which, after a certain threshold, "more powerful" does not matter?

• Perhaps most basic of all: What kind of ”war” has no “us” or “them”?

If our basic assumptions about “war” turn into unanswerable questions, perhaps it does not make sense to use the word that invokes all these conventional assumptions. So now we may see in a new light the absence of "war" from the story of the Flood. For the Flood afflicted us all. It cut across all political and geographical boundaries. It did not pit one nation against another. The violence, the corruption, the ruination of the earth took place within every nation, every people, perhaps every species. Our own violence, our own corruption, our own ruination overflowed. They rose to Flood stage. Our own behavior led to our destruction, but the disaster was not a war.

If the danger is that my house will be flooded because someone left the water gushing, will I save my house by turning on more water to drown this reckless plumber? No; the flood will just come sooner. By not using the language of war, by not running an arms race, I am more likely to prevent an all consuming flood.

Then what word shall we use to shape our actions so we can prevent disaster? As we kept searching in the story, we found an ancient commentary: Long ago, the Rabbis told of Abraham watching the fires that destroyed Sodom and Gomorra. “But, God,” said Abraham, “You promised never again to destroy the world through such a Flood. Surely You did not mean to rule out only a Flood of water? Surely You did not mean that You might send a Flood of Fire?”

And God was silent.

Or as the Southern Black song puts it, "God gave Noah the Rainbow Sign: No more water. The fire next time!"

When we tried to put those words, the “Flood of Fire,” into contemporary English, the word that rose up for us is also the word that sets us most atremble: “Holocaust.” The “All Burning,” for that is what "holocaust" means.

A word, an event, from the Jewish corner of the world-wide hologram. A corner from which we can unfold the whole.

And so we learned from Torah to insist on saying that we faced not thermonuclear war but thermonuclear holocaust. We insisted on saying not "50,000 weapons" or "50,000 H bombs" when we talked about the world-wide arsenal, but "50,000 instant portable Auschwitzes," each machine capable of doing in thirty minutes what it took Auschwitz thirty months to do.

Soon we realized that our other impending environmental disasters also partake of the nature of a Flood, not of a war. Those who say that we must cut down the Oregon forests to compete with businesses that are burning the Amazon, we must make still more automobiles that fill the air with carbon dioxide to keep ahead of others who are selling automobiles, are thinking in the metaphor of economic war, not that of Flood. If we can change our language, we might change our future.

Transformations in Time

As we kept peeling layers of the story of the Flood, we realized how obsessed it is with time and dates. It specifies the date when the rain began to fall as "the seventeenth day of the second month." It specifies how long the rain lasted, the date when the waters stopped their rising, the date when dry ground first appeared, the date when the Ark landed. It names the date when the Ark’s passengers could disembark and receive the Rainbow Covenant: the "twenty seventh day of the second month." One lunar year plus eleven days from start to finish: exactly one solar year.

The exactitude with which these dates are given is still more surprising when we consider that they are the only dates specified in all of Genesis. Indeed, from the Creation until the Exodus from Egypt, the Bible gives no dates except those connected with the Flood. There is no date for the Tower of Babel, or Abraham's departure from the town of Ur, or the Binding of Isaac, or Jacob's wrestle with God, or Joseph's accession to power in Egypt. Only dates for the Flood.

What are we to learn? Although the rabbis of the Talmud debated whether the "second" month was in the spring or fall, they never suggested that the dates be put to practical use. Indeed, these dates have never been used in the life practice of Jews, or any other religious community. They have not been used as the date of the Exodus is used for Passover or the date of rededication of the Temple for Hanukkah.

Why were Passover and Hanukkah made dates of celebration? Because it was crucial for every generation to reexperience the Exodus and the Temple’s rededication. But the dates of the Flood and the Rainbow never needed to be used because no generation ever faced the possibility that all life might be destroyed. No generation, that is, until our own.

So some of us decided that, literally to save our lives, we should begin to observe and celebrate the moment of disaster and the moment of renewal: the dates of the Flood and the Rainbow.

Then we faced a practical question: when? The Talmudic rabbis debated over what month was the second month, depending on whether the “first” month comes with the spring equinox and Passover or the fall equinox and Rosh Hashanah. Most of them decided that in regard to the Flood, the Bible meant that the "second month" was in the fall. But one of the most respected rabbis, Joshua, and "all the sages of the other nations" thought it meant the spring.

Such a comment was unusual for the Talmud; rarely did the rabbis turn to "the sages of the other nations" to hear how they might interpret Torah. Yet in the case of the universal Flood, they sought the wisdom of the other nations. Perhaps this was their way of acknowledging that some events both include and transcend all cultural boundaries -- and that the danger of universal death is one of these.

Adopting Joshua’s view, hundreds of synagogues and other Jewish groups began in the spring of 1982, in the days between the 17th and the 27th of Iyyar, to observe the anniversaries of the Flood and the Rainbow. They prayed, studied Torah, created new rituals to recognize that all life was in danger and to explore how all life could be preserved. Echoing the Talmud’s hint of universal wisdom, many of them invited Christian and Unitarian churches to join with them in the observance.

From this work, congregations recalled how powerful and how necessary it is to move through the yearly festivals, addressing with each festival the question of the preservation of our planet. We rediscovered the public power the festivals could carry, if they were carried into public space.

• We celebrated a Passover Seder against "the Ultimate Pharaoh," in the Nevada desert where the nuclear Auschwitzes of the future were being tested underground. We gathered in a circle to recite and chant and dance a new version of the Haggadah, preparing to walk onto the forbidden site of the nuclear weapons tests and be arrested. In the midst of the Seder, someone shouted in awe and joy, “Look up!” There we saw, emblazoned in the sky where there had been no rain for many months, a Rainbow. We said the blessing of joy for the One Who “does deeds of Beginning” and “remembers the Covenant.”

Later, as we were being arrested, someone told me that “Phenomenologically, the desert dust refracts light like raindrops.” “Phenomenologically,” I answered, “the fact that it happened right now, right here, is a miracle.”

• We built a sukkah the fragile, leafy, leaky, hut that celebrates the Jewish harvest festival at Lafayette Park near the White House and the Soviet Embassy, as a symbol of the fragility of all peoples and the need to make our security not from steel and concrete fallout shelters or "invulnerable" laser shields but from accepting how vulnerable all of us have become.

• On the seventh day of Sukkot, we went with willow branches to the banks of a river. On that day for millennia, Jews have danced seven dances around a Torah Scroll. We have beaten willows — the tree that always grows near rivers — on the earth; we have prayed for fructifying rain. In our generation, the tradition has almost died out. But we renewed it, chanting prayers that the rain should be cleansed of acid, the seas of oil slick, the air of methane, the earth of pesticides. We prayed that a healed earth heal its earthlings, that the plagues of cancer subside, that we and the earth learn to nurture each other in joy.

• We celebrated the Jewish "Birthday of the Trees" that comes in deepest winter on the fifteenth day of Shvat. We ate the fruits of the Tree of Life; we honored earth, air, water, fire; we planted new trees to give life to the planet.

We learned to draw on the life giving themes of every holy day, not only for individual spiritual growth, but also for the spiritual growth of the public community.

As we celebrated these rhythms in time, we realized that the Flood story teaches that affirming the rhythmic cycles of life is crucial to preventing the death of life. How did we learn this? When the Flood began, the normal cycles halted. Perhaps they had already been thwarted and ignored, and the Flood came precisely to call forth a conscious understanding that the cycles had stopped.

The Bible says that just before the rain began to fall, there were seven days while Noah’s family and all their passengers sat waiting in the Ark. The rabbis teach that during those seven days the sun rose in the West and set in the East. In other words, the seven days of Creation were being run backward and so the sun reversed itself. During the precise solar year that all the animals and humans spent aboard the Ark, the rabbis also say they all refrained from sex refrained from initiating the life cycle.

When Noah wanted to test out the dry land, he tried to restart the great cycles of night and day, death and life. First he sent out a raven, black as the night, named arva , a word similar to erev, "evening.” Then he sent out a dove, white as the morning, named yonah , a word similar to yom, "day." The raven, bird of carrion, cleared the earth of the dead carcasses that were the end product of the last life-cycle before the Flood. The dove brought back for food the olive branch, the first new life that had sprung up after the great disaster.

Noah's effort to renew the cycles won God's response in the Rainbow Covenant. God’s promise to renew and preserve life mentions precisely the timely cycles through which life renews itself:

Never again will I doom the earth ...

Never again will I destroy all life ...

So long as the earth endures,

Seedtime and harvest,

Cold and heat,

Summer and winter,

Day and night,

Shall not cease.

... This is the sign that I set

For the covenant between Me and you

And every living creature with you,

For the generations forever:

I have set my bow in the clouds.

What are we to learn from this? In the age of Modernity, the sacred cycles of time have been thwarted. We have let our desire for “productivity" destroy our sense of holy time and holy cycles. We have become so drunk on our new ability to produce goods that we have forgotten to rest, reflect, contemplate, meditate, celebrate.

This hyperproductive mode, in which time is only a raw material of production, has taken us to the brink of hyper destruction. In a world that discards meditation and celebration as — literally — a waste of time, the H bomb, destruction of the ozone layer, acid rain, deforestation, global warming are all inevitable. The Flood and the Rainbow remind us that we must renew the cycles and our celebration of them in order to live.

Noah’s own name means “the restful one.” Only a restful one can save all life.

Perhaps religious communities are especially responsible to say that not only hard work and dire warnings, but also joyful rest and joyful hope are necessary if we are to heal our planet. The Rainbow was an ensign of hope, a flag of new possibility. It was God's reminder that not only human beings but even God must have a symbol of hope, if life is to be renewed.

The Arc of Unity

What else does the Rainbow teach? The Bible specifies that the Rainbow came on Mt. Ararat. This is surprising and important. Although the Flood was mythically universal — like water in that there was no place to pin it down — it ends at a well-known place with a specific name. Why there?

Because from Ararat, the mountain peak that looms in Turkey high above the Middle East, the Fertile Crescent is a unity. Just as the earth looks like a unity from space, so the "whole known world" looked from Ararat. That was where the human race looked like a single family in all its inner variation: From many colors, one “adam.”

Indeed, the Rainbow itself was a heavenly reflection of the great arc of human settlements across the Middle East. And the Rainbow’s varied colors remind us that we can only preserve human unity if we accept human diversity. Just as the Flood perched the Ark upon Ararat where the Crescent could appear in its unity, so the same technology that gave us the Bomb and global warming perched the rockets high above us, to give us our first glimpse of ourselves as one great ball of beauty. It is our collective danger that teaches us we are connected.

The great rabbinic commentator Nachmanides wrote that God gave the Rainbow by turning upside down the bow of war. "See," said God; "My bow can no longer shoot from Heaven. It is now my sign of peace and love and hope."

And in our day, the weapon of ultimate destruction is also connected with the Rainbow. Those who have observed the awesome explosion of an H bomb have reported how beautiful and terrifying are the flashing myriad colors that appear within the mushroom cloud. All the colors of the rainbow. For the H bomb and all its technological cousins are the Rainbow shattered.

In the years since the early 1980s when this reexamination of the Flood began, there has been an extraordinarily important change in the world: One of the nuclear super-powers has collapsed, and our fear of the H-bomb has receded from the foreground of our thoughts.

But the H-bomb was only the first, the starkest, of the human technologies that endanger life upon our planet. Now we know more about the other dangers. But this has not meant an automatic healing. Too many feel so spiritually hungry that they hunger to gobble up material goods beyond all use. Too many are frightened that in a world that does not share and celebrate, refusing to join in the gang-rape of the planet will mean a personal disaster for themselves.

So the danger of the Flood of Fire still surrounds us. Those of us who, like Noah, are no experts must begin the building of the Earth as Ark. We must turn away from metaphors of military and economic warfare. We must consciously permeate every aspect of our lives with the effort to preserve life on this planet. All this so that we can fulfill the promise of the Rainbow Covenant. For now it is we who hold the fiery bow of destruction in our hands, aimed at each other. It is our turn to make the Rainbow.

We can learn still more from the story of the Flood. We can learn a method: how to think when one great era is succeeded by another. For the story echoes the wisdom of the era before the Flood, transmuted to make new wisdom afterward.

The Flood story puts this transmuted wisdom into God's own mouth. Before the Flood, God saw that all the urgings of the human heart and mind were bent toward evil, "all the day." Indeed, this is why God decided to blot out all life on earth. After the Flood, something about the new situation -- perhaps a planet full of carcasses? -- taught God some new conclusions. For in almost the same words, God says, "The urgings of the human heart are evil, from youth onward," and therefore God decides never again to doom the earth.

Reinterpreting our older wisdom is the method by which we must learn today. It is not enough to reject the old traditions; nor is it enough to accept them. We must hear them, learn from them, wrestle with them, wring from them their quintessential truth, cast aside old husks of former meaning that are no longer fully truthful and we must live by our new understanding of their ancient wisdom.

When Jews have been at our best in living life, this has been our quintessential method — the midrashic method, the Godwrestling method. But in a time when the Flood threatens and the Rainbow beckons, this process needs to become a path that everyone, not only Jews, can walk. So here is a crucial learning that the Jewish people can offer, from its own corner of the hologram, to all of earth and all its earthlings:

You can learn from your own wisdom and transform it, without abandoning your own identity. We have done it when in a moment of great crisis we invented Rabbinic Judaism; in the story of the Flood, God does it; each human community can do it. Indeed, you must — if we are all to share in the planet’s flowering, not its doom.

Why is this important? Because most human communities would rather die than surrender their identities. They will choose to live and change only if they understand how to do this by renewing their identities.

There is yet another crucial piece of wisdom that we can offer from our corner of the hologram: The wisdom of rhythmic sacred time, celebrating the spirals of the sun and moon and earth as well as the spirals of our history.

The rhythm of reflection and renewal through the midrashic method, and the rhythm of reflection and renewal through Shabbat: these two gifts can bring new life in times of crisis. It is no accident they come together; for they are deeply and forever intertwined.

The Shalom Center will send you GODWRESTLING -- ROUND 2 with a personal inscription from Rabbi Waskow as a thank=you gift, if you make a tax-deductible contribution as shown when you click the maroon "Shalom Center" logo in the left-hand margin of this Website.


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