Shabbat Noach: Rainbow, Oil Slicks, & Sabbatical Year: A tale of two covenants -- broken

By Rabbi David Seidenberg See his Website at

Monday, May 10, 2010, is also the 27th of Iyyar—the date when Noah’s family and the animals left the ark and received the rainbow covenant.

There is a special correlation between this week’s Torah portion and the rainbow covenant of Noah’s time. And there is a foreboding contrast between the rainbow covenant and what’s happened in the Gulf of Mexico. The tension between these dynamic relationships in many ways defines the predicament of our time.

Just as this week is the week we read about the central covenant of the Torah encoded in the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, it is also the week when the anniversary of the rainbow covenant falls. It is no random happenstance: the covenant represented by the Jubilee is in many ways a response to the covenant with Noah and the animals.

How so? The covenant of Noah’s time—the first covenant recorded in the Torah—includes the land and the animals as covenant partners with God alongside the human family. This is also the case with the Jubilee covenant: the land is promised her Sabbaths as a condition for the Israelites to settle upon the land, while the people are required in the Sabbatical year, when the land is resting, to open their fences to allow the wild animals in to eat their fill.

The first condition—to let the land rest—is a fulfillment of the promise in the rainbow covenant that God will no longer destroy the land because of humanity: here God promises to exile humanity in order to save the land from being destroyed. The second condition—allowing the wild animals into the fields—is a tikkun for what happened after the rainbow covenant: even though the animals were partners in God’s covenantal promise not to destroy the earth, they afterwards became fodder for the humans (“like green plants I give you them all”).

Instead, here, in the Sabbatical year, the humans are required to allow their agriculture to go wild and to invite the wild animals to share what grows. This is not only a tikkun for the permission granted to human beings to eat animals. It is also a return to the Garden of Eden, where animals and human beings shared the same food.

And the Gulf of Mexico? In the rainbow covenant God promised not to destroy the Earth because of us, but God did not promise that we wouldn’t destroy the Earth. As the oil laps at the shore and threatens vast ecosystems, important food sources, and endangered species, we must realize that God’s covenant is not enough to save us. The iridescent colors reflected off an oil slick are like a twisted and distorted rainbow. They remind us that we have reached a point where we can undo God’s rainbow covenant at the expense or our own lives and the lives of other creatures.

[Editor's Note; This twisted oil-slick version of the rainbow reminds me: in the early days of The Shalom Center, when we were focused on the dangers of the nuclear arms race, we urged that 27 Iyyar, Yom HaKeshet, Rainbow Sign Day, be observed as a day of commitment to end the nuclear danger. We pointed out that observers of some H-Bomb tests reported that the mushroom cloud was filled with eerie beauty -- sparks of every color of the rainbow. The Rainbow shattered. As ancient rabbinic midrash warns and a Southern black spiritual sings: "God gave Noah the Rainbow Sign: No more water, the Fire next time." Whether the Fire is nuclear holocaust or global climate scorching, it is a shattered, twisted version of the Rainbow Sign that appears to us. Or rather, that we ourselves invent, de-creating God's creation, shattering God's promise.-- Rabbi Arthur Waskow, ed.]

These are the worst of times, because the threat is that close and that enormous. And these are the best of times, because we can wake up to our potential for love and righteousness and create a sustainable world, a world that reflects the rainbow covenant as it was meant to be: a promise to honor and cherish all beings, as God does, and so to act in God’s image.

Then, to quote a medieval prayer (from Pri Eitz Hadar), may we be privileged to see “the whole return to its original strength…and to see the rainbow, joyful and beautified with his colors.” Yashuv hakol l’eitano ha rishon, v’niratah hakeshet, sas umitpa’er b’govanin.


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