Parashat Noah: The Rainbow’s Message
After the flood, Hashem makes a promise to Noah and all his descendants that He would never again flood the earth. He showed Noach a rainbow in the sky that would serve as an everlasting sign of this covenant made with the world that it would never again be destroyed.
Different approaches have been taken to explain the particular significance of the rainbow and its designation as a sign of Hashem’s covenant. One especially meaningful explanation was suggested by the great Rabbi Meir Shapiro of Lublin (Poland, 1887-1933), founder of the Daf Yomi study program. Rav Shapiro noted the famous comments of the Zohar criticizing Noah for not making attempts to inspire his contemporaries toward repentance. The verse in Yeshayahu (54:9) describes the flood as “Meh Noah” – “the waters of Noah” – and the Zohar explains that Noah was “blamed” for the flood because he made no effort to help the people change. Upon hearing G-d’s decree of the flood, he should not have just accepted the news and felt content saving himself and his family. He should have immediately gone out and preached to the people, investing every bit of effort possible to motivate them to repent. Because he failed to do so, the flood is forever known as “Meh Noah,” the flood of Noah.
But the question then arises, why, in fact, did Noah fail to make such efforts? Surely there must be some reason why he did not bother to inspire the people of his time to change.
Rav Shapiro suggested that Noah assumed all hope was lost. He saw how debased and corrupt the people had become and concluded that there was no possibility at all of change. The generation had deteriorated to such woefully low levels of sin, he figured, that it would be a waste of his time to try inspiring them to improve.
On this basis, Rav Shapiro explained, we can understand the powerful symbolism of the rainbow. Our Sages teach that during the period of the flood, the sun, moon and stars ceased functioning. The entire earth was plunged into complete darkness throughout the forty days of the flood. But afterward, not only did the sun shine, but G-d produced a magnificent rainbow across the sky, providing even greater and more beautiful illumination. He wanted to show Noah – and us – that light can shine even after the darkest periods. No matter how “dark” things become, there is the possibility of the restoration of light, and even greater light than that which existed beforehand. The rainbow is the sign of G-d’s covenant with the earth because it represents the potential for every person and every generation to “shine” brightly even after a period of spiritual “darkness.” Noah was wrong for despairing from his generation, and we, too, must never despair from anyone, including ourselves. Even when things appear “dark,” they can eventually become “light.”
Rav Shapiro cited in this context the Mishna’s exhortation in Pirkeh Abot, “Im Lamadeta Torah Harbeh Al Tahazik Toba Le’asmecha Kil Lechah Nosarta.” Literally, this means, “If you studied much Torah, do not congratulate yourself, because it was for this you were created.” Rav Shapiro, however, explained this Mishna to mean that if a person amassed Torah knowledge, “Al Tahazik Toba Le’asmecha” – he should not keep the “Toba” – the goodness, referring to Torah – for himself, and should instead work to disseminate it, “because it was for this you were created.” We are here not just to work on ourselves, but to influence and impact upon the world. Whatever spiritual wealth we have accumulated must be shared, because we are here to make a difference in the world, and not to isolate ourselves as Noah did.
The rainbow, then, is a challenge to each and every one of us to do what we can to “shine” the light of Torah, with the firm belief that no matter how “dark” things appear, we have the potential to make a change and make a meaningful impact upon the world.