The Era of the Rainbow

Bereishit   Noah   Lech Lecha   Vayeira   Chayei Sarah   Toldot
Vayeitzei   Vayishlach   Vayeishev   Mikeitz   Vayigash   Vayechi


ESSAY: The Era of the Rainbow
A water-droplet catches a ray of light, unleashing the spectrum of colors it contains and displaying them in an arc across the sky. But for the first 1,656 years of history, this natural occurrence did not occur

INSIGHTS: The Last Jew
The holiest place on earth is on a Jerusalem mountaintop; its most ordinary and most important place is a 15-days’ journey away, in a field on the banks of the Euphrates

The Era of the Rainbow

And G-d spoke to Noah and to his sons with him, saying: “... This shall be the sign of the covenant which I am making between Me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all generations.
My rainbow I have set in the cloud.... When the rainbow shall be seen in the cloud, I shall remember My covenant.... Never again shall the waters become a flood to destroy all flesh.”

Genesis 9:8-15

The rainbow, of course, is a natural phenomenon. Rays of sunlight pass through water droplets suspended in the atmosphere; the clear, crystal-like droplets refract the light, unleashing the spectrum of colors it contains and displaying them in an arc across the misty skies.

Yet before the Flood, this natural occurrence did not occur. There was something about the interaction between the moisture in the earth’s atmosphere and the light emanating from the sun that failed to produce a rainbow. It was only after the Flood that the dynamics that create a rainbow were set in place by the Creator as a sign of His newly-formed covenant with His creation.

The spiritual and the physical are two faces of the same reality. This change in the physical nature of the interaction between water and light reflects a deeper, spiritual difference between the pre- and post-Flood worlds, and the resultant difference in G-d’s manner of dealing with a corrupted world.

Contrary Differences

An examination of the Torah’s account of the first twenty generations of history reveals two primary differences between the world before the Flood and the post-Flood era.

The pre-Flood generations enjoyed long lives—we find people living into their 8th, 9th and 10th centuries (Noah’s grandfather, Methuselah, lived 969 years; his father, Lemech, 777 years; Noah himself, 950 years[1]). The Zohar explains that this was an era of divine benevolence, in which life, health and prosperity flowed freely and indiscriminately from Above.

Following the Flood, we see a steady decline in the human lifespan.[2] Within ten generations, Abraham is “old” at the age of 100.[3]

The second difference is one that seems at odds with, and even contradictory to, the first: after the Flood, the world gained a stability and permanence it did not enjoy in the pre-Flood era. Before the Flood, the world’s very existence was contingent upon its moral state. When humanity disintegrated into corruption and violence, G-d said to Noah:

The end of all flesh is come before Me, for the earth is filled with violence through them; behold, I shall destroy them and the earth.[4]

Following the Flood, G-d vowed:
I will not again curse the earth because of man.... neither will I again smite everything living, as I have done. For all days of the earth, [the seasons for] seed time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.[5]

No longer would the cycles of life and nature totter on the verge of extinction whenever man strays from his G-d. The post-Flood world is a world whose existence is assured, a world that is desired by its Creator regardless of its present state of conformity to His will.

And the guarantor of this assurance, the symbol of this new stability, is the rainbow.

An Opaque World

Before the Flood, man’s role in creation lay primarily in reacting to G-d’s involvement in the world. The flow of divine vitality into the world was plentiful and uninhibited, enabling man to attain great material and spiritual heights; but these achievements were merely man’s acceptance of what was being bestowed upon him from Above, rather than the fruits of his own initiative.

The pre-Flood world was like a brilliant pupil who grasps the most profound teachings of his master, but who lacks the ability to conceive of a single original thought of his own. So once corrupted—once it had distanced itself from its Master and disavowed its relationship with Him—it lost the basis for its existence. When man ceased to respond, the world held no further use for the Creator.

After the Flood, G-d imbued the world with a new potential—the potential to create. He granted it the ability to take what it receives from Above and develop it, extend it, and expand upon it. The world was now like a disciple who had been trained by his master to think on his own, to take the ideas which he learns and apply them to new areas. Man was now able not only to absorb the divine input into his life but also to unleash its potential in new, unprecedented ways.

Such a world is in many ways a “weaker” world than one that is wholly sustained by divine grace. It is more independent, and thus more subject to the limitations and mortality of the human state. Hence the shorter lifespans of the post-Flood generations. But in the final analysis, such a world is more enduring: even when it loses sight of its origin and purpose, it retains the ability to rehabilitate itself and restore its relationship with its Creator. Because it possesses an independent potential for self-renewal, it can always reawaken this potential, even after it has been suppressed and lain dormant for generations.

Rising Mist

The rainbow is the natural event that exemplifies the new post-Flood order. Moisture rises from the earth to form clouds and raindrops, which catch the light of the sun. A less refined substance would merely absorb the light; but the purity and translucency of these droplets allows them to focus and channel the rays they capture in such a way that reveals the many colors implicit within each ray of sunlight.

The pre-Flood world lacked the rainbow. There was nothing in or about it that could rise from below to interact with and develop what it received from Above. Such was its spiritual nature; as a result, the conditions for a physical rainbow also failed to develop—the mist it raised could only absorb, but not refract, the light of the sun.

Lacking a creative potential of its own, the pre-Flood world was left without reason and right for existence when it ceased to receive the divine effluence from Above. Then came the Flood. The rains that destroyed a corrupted world also cleansed it and purified it, leaving in their wake a new world with a new nature: a world that rises to meet and transform what is bestowed upon it; a world with the “translucency” and refinement to develop the gifts it receives into new, unprecedented vistas of color and light.

When this world goes astray, G-d sees its rainbow, and the sight causes Him to desist from destroying it. For the rainbow attests to the world’s new maturity—its ability to ultimately rise above its present lapse and rebuild its relationship with its Creator.

Based on the Rebbe’s talks, Shabbat Noach 5721 (1960) 5724 (1963)[6]

The Last Jew

On the seventh day of Cheshvan, fifteen days after the conclusion of the festival [of Sukkot], one begins to pray for rain. This is to allow the very last Jew to reach the Euphrates River

Talmud, Taanit 10a

In many Chassidic communities, it was the custom that at the conclusion of the Tishrei festival season, the gabbai of the synagogue would ascend to the podium, pound on the table and, citing Genesis 32:2, announce: “And Jacob went on his way!”

When the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, the festival of Sukkot (Tishrei 15-21) was a time of pilgrimage for all Jews, when all came to “see and be seen” at the Temple,[7]

 the seat of G-d’s manifest presence in the physical world. In the days following the festival, the caravans would stream from the holy city and make the long (physically for some, spiritually for all) trek back to plow and pruning hook, back to field, vineyard and orchard. The end of the first week of the month of Cheshvan found the people of Israel once more “each under his grapevine, each under his fig tree.”[8]

Today, too, Cheshvan marks the end of a period of spiritual focus and a return to the demands of material life. During the month of Elul and the “Days of Awe” that open the month of Tishrei, we occupied ourselves with “repentance, prayer, and charity,” striving to improve our relationships with our Creator and with our fellows. Immediately following came Sukkot, the festival of unity and joy, and Simchat Torah, when we celebrated our unique bond with the Almighty by rejoicing with the Torah. Cheshvan is the month in which we return to our pedestrian involvements after many weeks in which the spiritual was at the forefront of our lives. Indeed, the only “distinguishing feature” of this month is the fact that it is the only month on the Jewish calendar that does not have a single festival or special day.

In truth, however, the month of Cheshvan, by virtue of its ordinariness, represents the very purpose of life on earth. For the Jew does not live only for the spiritual experiences of the festivals, merely “tolerating” the stretches of ordinary days and weeks in between; on the contrary—the holy days which dot our year exist for the sake of the so-called “mundane” days of our lives.

High and Low

 “G-d desired a dwelling place in the lower realms.” With these words our sages describe the divine purpose in creation.[9]

What are the “lower realms”? It is common to refer to the spiritual as “higher” than the material, and to the physical universe as the “lowest” of G-d’s creations. But are these designations truly justified? After all, G-d not only created all spiritual and physical entities but also the very concepts of “spirituality” and “physicality.” He transcends both realms equally and, at the same time, is equally present in both, for His all-embracing truth knows no limit or categorization. So why should the spiritual be deemed loftier than the physical?

To understand why the physical is indeed “lower” than the spiritual, we must first examine the meaning of the term olam, the Hebrew word for “world.” Olam means “concealment.” A “world” is a framework or context within which things exist; and in order for anything to exist, a concealment must first take place.

The reason for this is that the basic (and only) law of existence is that “there is none else besides Him”[10] that G-d is the only true existence and that nothing exists outside of His all-pervading reality. In order for anything else to possess even the slightest semblance of somethingness or selfhood, this truth must be veiled and obscured. Hence G-d’s creation of “worlds”—concealments within which things may exist distinct and apart (at least in their own conception) from the all-nullifying reality of G-d.

G-d created both “higher” spiritual creations and “lower” physical ones. The difference between them lies not in their essential closeness to or separateness from G-d, but in the degree of the concealment their “worlds” provide. A lesser concealment may allow for things to “exist,” but these existences will be conscious of their Creator and utterly subservient to Him, acknowledging their total dependence upon Him. In this there are many gradations and degrees—the greater the concealment in any given world, the more of a “self” the creations of that world will possess.

In this sense, the physical world is the lowest world of all. So great is the physical world’s concealment of G-dliness, that the selfhood of its inhabitants is absolute: by nature, the physical object or creature strives only for its own preservation and advancement, regarding its own existence as the axis around which all else revolves. The world of the physical not only dims its divine source but obscures it entirely, even allowing for creations that deny their own origin and essence.

The Dwelling

It is this lowest of worlds that is the focus of G-d’s creation. G-d wished to create an environment in which His reality is almost entirely concealed, an environment so distant from its source in Him that it can even contain “evil”—elements which resist and deny His all-pervading truth, despite the fact that they are utterly dependent upon Him for their vitality and existence. And in this “lowly” realm He desired that we construct for Him a “dwelling”: a place in which He is at home, an environment in which He is openly and uninhibitedly Himself.

So He designed us as material creatures whose very survival demands a great deal of interaction with the physical reality. And He gave us the ability to direct our material lives to serve a G-dly ideal. Every time we use the yield of our field or business to help the needy, every time we utilize our workday involvements as the means by which to carry out the Creator’s will, we are vanquishing the self-centeredness which so dominates the nature of the material world. We are vanquishing the “I am” of the physical, thereby transforming its very essence: instead of being the world that most obscures the reality of G-d, it now becomes a “home” for Him—an environment that expresses and reveals how truly all-pervading His reality is.

Thus, the physical aspects of our existence are the primary vehicle for the fulfillment of our life’s purpose. The spiritual in ourselves and in creation was created only in order to assist us in the realization of this goal—to inspire and direct us in our interactions with the physical. So one who shuns involvement with the material world and pursues only spiritual and transcendent endeavors is abandoning his primary mission in life.

The same applies to the spiritual and material areas of time. The festivals of Tishrei—as all special dates and events of the Jewish calendar—are for the sake of the “Cheshvan” days of our lives. These spiritual days exist in order to supply us with fortitude and direction so that we may make proper and optimal use of the ordinary days of the year—the days in which we interact with the physical reality, each in his own occupation and field of endeavor.

The Trek to the Euphrates

There does seem, however, to be one breach in the ordinariness of Cheshvan: “On the seventh day of Cheshvan,” says the Talmud, “fifteen days after the conclusion of the festival [of Sukkot], one begins to pray for rain. This is to allow the very last Jew to reach the Euphrates River.” (To this day, Jews living in the Land of Israel add the prayer for rain to their daily prayers beginning on the 7th of Cheshvan.[11])

But upon closer examination, the “specialty” of this day only further underscores the preeminence of the ordinary in the Jew’s life.

For the duration of the festival of Sukkot, the Jew left his field and field-related concerns behind and came to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, where the miraculous was the norm and the divine presence was openly perceived. But then began his journey back home—home to his homestead, home to his mission and purpose. For some it was a journey of several hours, for others, of several days, and for the “last Jew” farming his land on the most distant frontier of Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel, it was a fifteen-day journey to the Euphrates. On the 7th of Cheshvan, when every last Jew was home on his own land, the entire community of Israel began to pray for rain, beseeching G-d to bless their efforts to work the earth and the earthiness of the world into an abode for His presence.

On a deeper level, the “last Jew” is the most distant Jew in the spiritual sense—the one whose occupation is the most material of all. Yet all Jews, including those whose missions in life have placed them but a stone’s throw from Jerusalem, cannot pray for rain until the “lowliest” of pilgrims has reached home. For without this last Jew, their work is incomplete; it is he, more than any other, who represents what life is all about.

Based on an address by the Rebbe, Cheshvan 8, 5745 (November 3, 1984)[12]

 Adapted from the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe by Yanki Tauber


[1] Genesis 5:27, 31; 9:29.

[2] Noah’s son, Shem, lived 600 years; Shem’s son, Arpachshad, 438; Terach, Abraham’s father and a 9th-generation descendent of Noah, lived 205 years; Abraham himself, 175; Abraham’s great-grandson, Levi, 137; Levi’s great-grandson, Moses, 120 years (ibid. 11:10-13, 32; 25:7; Exodus 6:15; Deuteronomy 34:7).

[3] Genesis 18:11.

[4] Ibid. 6:13.

[5] Ibid. 8:21-22.

[6] Likkutei Sichot, vol. XV, pp. 51-54.

[7] Exodus 23:17, as per Talmud, Sanhedrin 4b.

[8] I Kings 5:5.

[9] Midrash Tanchuma, Nasso 16; Tanya, ch. 36.

[10] Deuteronomy 4:35.

[11] In other lands, the request for rain is included in our prayers beginning on the 60th day after the autumnal equinox.

[12] Likkutei Sichot, vol. XXV, pp. 38-46.

A Box of Life
Noah's Flood
The Era of the Rainbow
The Fifty-Sixth Century
The Vacuum of Survival

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