Is Seeing a Rainbow Good or Bad?
Is seeing a rainbow a good or a bad thing? On the one hand, it’s a majestic creation of God and a beautiful natural phenomenon. On the other, we are taught that it’s a sign God wants to destroy the world – and is only not doing so because of His covenant with Noah. So how should I feel when I see one?
The Aish Rabbi Replies
You are right that in spite of its majestic beauty, the rainbow seems to represent two things at once. The context in which it is introduced to us in the Torah is a very negative one. God tells Noah that the rainbow will appear at times when He deems the world worthy of destruction. It will serve as a reminder for God (so to speak) of His promise that He will never again flood and destroy the world. Yet its very appearance denotes that the world should be destroyed at that very moment had God not promised otherwise. (See Genesis 9:8-17).
In fact, based on this, Jewish law states that if a person sees a rainbow, he should not tell anyone else, as it would be a form of sharing bad news (Mishna Berurah 229:1).
There is likewise a Midrash that a rainbow never appeared during certain very righteous generations – such as during the times of the righteous King Hezkiah or of the great Kabbalist R. Shimon bar Yochai – when the world clearly did not deserve destruction (Bereishit Rabbah 35:2).
However, this does not mean we should be personally unhappy when we see a rainbow. It might be true that the world is not so worthy today, but that is hardly something we didn’t know already. (Again, only very special generations never saw a rainbow at all.) In any event, we don’t have to blame ourselves personally for the world’s sinfulness – although of course each of us should try to do his part to make the world a better place. When we see a rainbow, although it’s a reminder of the sad state of the world today, we can still appreciate the fact that God keeps His promise to preserve the world and recite the blessing with that in mind. (See this article about the blessing made on seeing a rainbow.)
Even beyond that, there is no question that rainbows are majestically beautiful. When we look up at one, it gives us an exhilarating feeling – of the overwhelming beauty of God’s world and His natural phenomena. In fact, the Sages state that we should not stare at a rainbow because it is tantamount to staring at God Himself (Talmud Hagigah 16a). (This is based on Ezekiel’s description of his vision of God, in which he compares it to “the appearance of the rainbow that will be in the cloud on a rainy day” (1:28).) The rainbow is thus an especially strong manifestation of God in the world. Although the background might be that the world is not wholly worthy, it is as if God Himself comes down to watch over us, stating in effect that He will never again give up on mankind.