I love rainbows. They always cause a frisson of excitement in my house every time one glimpses the watery stripes in the sky. Children learn their colours from those painted streaks, and only discover later that it’s actually refracted light on meeting moist air. Despite the scientific explanation, it appears magical each time.
Nachmanides, the Spanish Torah commentator, had the same idea when he read the text of God using the rainbow as a sign of covenant and love after the flood. Even he says boldly (for the 13th century) that the rainbow was not created by God at this moment but had been in existence since creation as a natural phenomenon, which was used now by God as a promise of constancy, a reminder of God’s regret.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s verse may suggest something many of us have noticed. “Every common bush is afire with God, but only he who sees takes off his shoes.” Just so with the rainbow.
It’s charged for us as Jews because it brings with it a memory of destruction and a commitment of “never again”. Rashi asks why the clouds will cause the appearance of the rainbow and suggests God’s explanation for the phenomenon: “When it comes to My mind to bring darkness and destruction to the world, [then I bring a rainbow]”.
The rainbow has become a symbol of hope and a reminder of love. The rainbow reminds that regret is good and good intention powerful. The bow across the sky symbolises the ultimate U-turn and, unlike Margaret Thatcher’s assertion, that can be a good thing.