Turning Bows And Arrows Into Rainbows
Tue, 10/01/2013
Special To The Jewish Week
Rabbi Yael Buechler
Rabbi Yael Buechler

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 6:14 p.m.
Torah: Gen. 6:9-11:32; Numbers 28:9-15
Haftarah: Isaiah 66:1-24
Havdalah: 7:13 p.m.

Editor's Note: 5774 will be a special treat for online readers of "Sabbath Week." The Jewish Week is thrilled to bring our weekly Torah commentary together with artist Archie Rand's "Chapter Paintings:" one accompanies, illustrates and illuminates every Torah portion. The art will be available first on the Jewish Week's homepage slide carousel, and then on our Arts page carousel ... that is, until the next week, when the next portion, painting and dvar Torah take their turn. Read more about the artist and his work here.

As the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy approaches, we are ever sensitive to the destructive force of water, as described in parashat Noach. While the narrative begins with a flood and the destruction of a generation filled with evil, it ends with a surprising turn of events. After the flood subsides, God states: “I will never again bring doom upon the world on account of what people do; though the human mind inclines to evil from youth onward, I will never again destroy all living beings, as I have [just] done” (Genesis 8:21).

On this phrase, the Midrash states: “How inferior must the plant be when he who planted it calls it bad” (Genesis-Rabbah 34:10). This Midrash highlights the enormity of God’s reframed view of the nature of humankind. Biblical commentator Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg describes God’s new view as an “almost inexplicable tolerance of the very problem of intrinsic evil” that had recently caused the flood.

Given that God believes humanity inclines toward evil, why would God now decide to never again destroy the world? According to Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, a modern Bible scholar, God’s statement does not express the claim that human beings are “inherently sinful but rather recognizes human limitations.”

Instead of destroying humanity for inclining toward evil, God has now committed to approaching humanity’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities with compassion. As such, God decides to offer more guidance, direction and support for people. Following this change of heart, God introduces a new set of laws, often referred to as the Noahide laws, in order to help reframe and guide human interaction.

In addition to God’s promise not to destroy all living things, God also publicly establishes an official brit (covenant) with humanity to never bring on an apocalyptic flood (Gen. 9:11). The seriousness of this covenant can be demonstrated by the repetition of the word “brit,” appearing seven times in a mere nine verses (Gen. 9:8-17).

Furthermore, God designates the rainbow to serve as a visual reminder of this covenant (Gen. 9:13). Ramban, a 13th-century scholar, suggests that the bow of the rainbow is directed away from the earth, as it was the custom of warriors to turn their bows the other way in order to signify peace with their enemies. The bow, once a symbol for wrath and destruction, is transformed into a rainbow, representing the divine hope for a better future.

The narrative of the flood initially demonstrates how destructive behavior often invites a destructive response. As part of the same narrative, however, God models how to break this pattern despite the human capacity for destruction.

At times we may find ourselves in a cycle of hurting and being hurt by other people. This week’s parasha contains a lesson about how we can break this cycle and invite others to come closer to us rather than perpetuating the destructive patterns. Through God’s promise to never again create a global flood, God teaches us the importance of creating a different experience with individuals that we care about in our lives. Rather than sitting back and expecting individuals around us to change, we can accept their limitations and turn our frustration into compassion. From God’s model in parashat Noach, we learn that we have the capacity to strengthen our relationships through patience and support.

We recently underwent a season of teshuvah, repentance, where we declared that patterns in our lives need not be as they are and we promised to change our ways. Let God’s brave and bold decision in the narrative of Parashat Noah serve as a reminder of our capacity to experience a change of heart. Just as God is an ever-evolving and compassionate God, let us be vehicles for change in our own relationships and in the world at large.

Rabbi Yael Buechler is the rabbi-in-residence at Schechter Westchester’s Lower School and is the founder of Midrash Manicures, which recently launched Jewish educational nail decals for Chanukah and Israel.

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I have three problems with the conception of the rainbow as a covenant: 1) It is rare, i.e. there are dozens and dozens of rainstorms that are NOT followed by a rainbow; 2) It is exceedingly brief; 3) It cannot be seen by blind people.

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