For Congregation Ner Shalom, May 18, 2012
In honor of Shari Brenner and Cybele and Nora Brenner-West
This week threw me. Cybele's sudden pneumonia and hospitalization - the direness, the savageness of it. The life-changingness of it. It put an end to one planned sermon topic that I decided was just too light for a week of such gravity.
So I figured instead to talk about rainbows. I know rainbows also sound like a light topic. Literally a light topic. Rainbows aren't things of substance and mass. Rainbows are visions; they're only illusions. Any substance we must supply. So we project upon them. We imagine magical kingdoms somewhere over them; or pots of gold at the end of them. We can dream that stuff up without restraint, because there is no over or end of to prove us wrong. They are tricks of light, existing only in our perception.
Rainbows symbolize our dreams. Mostly our unreachable dreams. Or sometimes just beauty itself. But wait, there's more. Thanks to Jesse Jackson, the range of colors in the rainbow came to symbolize the power of human diversity and coalition. Then thanks to Gilbert Baker, the gay Betsy Ross, the rainbow got sewn into a flag and reemerged as the global symbol of gay pride, perhaps the most effective branding of a natural phenomenon since Jesus came up with the little fish for the back of the car.
But there's a good Jewish reason to talk about rainbows - tonight in particular. In Judaism, the rainbow has heavier symbolic import: it is a reminder of, or authentication of, an ancient covenant, a brit, that God made with all the creatures of the earth. The rainbow is the signature on that contract.
As you recall, God, disappointed with humankind, set out to wipe them out with a massive flood, in which the animals of the earth would also perish as collateral damage. So Lord said to Noah, "There's gonna be a floody floody," and you know the rest. And then on this day, the 27th of Iyar, which is the 42nd day of the Omer, Noah and his family and the, well, presumably millions of earth- and air-bound creatures they'd been cooped up with emerged at last from the Ark and, squinting in the sunlight, saw the very first rainbow overhead.
God then explains that never again will life on earth be cut off by the waters of a flood; the rainbow will be the sign of this covenant; whenever God causes a cloud to pass over, the rainbow will appear and remind God not to destroy life on earth. Shari said to me this week that the very idea that we would have a God who needs a reminder not to destroy all life chills her blood.
This rainbow covenant has, in recent years, become a launching point for discussion of Jewish approaches to ecology and planetary stewardship. While in this covenant God promises not to wipe out all life on Earth, humankind makes no such promise in return. So, according to the eco-Jews, the rainbow can become a reminder to us of our responsibility toward the planet. Life won't be destroyed by flood, but we could still destroy it by fire, if we don't act now to change. I think that teaching is very cool and very important and I'm happy to direct you to all sorts of websites and materials exploring Jewish views on sustainability and the honoring of other species.
But ultimately, that's not what interested me this week; this week of all weeks. All I could think about is the horror that Noah and family had experienced, a horror which, in the telling, usually gets downgraded to exciting and benign adventure.
Let's overlook for the moment the challenge of building this enormous ship to begin with and the impracticability of wrangling all the animals into it, and take it from the flood itself. The Noahs witnessed all of humankind die a nasty, nasty death. And the animals. And the birds that ran out of high places to alight. "All in whose nostrils was the breath of life, of all that was in the dry land, died." After those cries petered out, they went on to experience an isolation unknown since the time of Adam. Withstanding 40 days and 40 nights of rain may not be such a big deal; the people of Seattle do it all the time. But this ordeal continued well beyond that. Torah says the water surged for 150 days, not just from the rain but from underground sources that had been set loose. Then God remembered Noah and caused the waters to recede for another 150 days. The Ark came to rest perched on the mountain, but still they didn't emerge. All the sending of ravens and doves that we hear about happened after the Ark was already parked on the mountain top. Even when the dove came back with good news, they stayed put until they received God's instruction to disembark.
Final math: a lunar year plus 10 days on the Ark. In other words, a full solar year floating in a prison with all the living animals of the world. Midrash tells us that during that entire year Noah and his children never slept. Animals had to be fed around the clock.
We tell about Noah et al. emerging and seeing that first rainbow as if it's a happy ending. But I can't really imagine how it can be. How do you start over after a disaster of such magnitude? What are the scars you carry with you? The noises, the smells that haunt you? What are the horrors that visit you in your dreams?
Noah lives for another 350 years, well into Abraham's lifetime. Does life ever feel normal for him? Is he ever again capable of small talk, or does he show up at parties and inevitably blurt out things like, "That reminds me of when I was in the boat with all the animals and everyone in the world died," and people fidget their hors d'oeuvres and change the subject? Do Noah's children pass their terrors on to their children and they to theirs? How many generations are subtly raised to be afraid of water, afraid of beasts, afraid of closed spaces? How many generations get nervous when it starts to drizzle?
The rainbow isn't a happy ending. It can't be. Because no one who lives through a profound or prolonged life-changing moment can just put it aside with pretty colors and a promise that it won't happen again. Whether that moment is a natural disaster or a prison term or a tour of duty or a car accident or a divorce or a bankruptcy or a stroke or the surprise pneumonia that lands you in the ICU with sedation and tubes and months of recovery ahead - or that lands your 8-year old there.
What is it like to step off the Ark after that year, that awful, horrible year of seasickness and stench and the cries of drowning people followed by the silence of the rocking waters?
What can you possibly do next? You step off the Ark. Because you can. Because you have to. Because there's no going back. And the air is different. And the landscape is empty. And a message wrapped up in a rainbow tells you to dream again because now anything is possible. And you don't believe it and you don't think about your dreams anyway because you truly can't remember the last time you slept.
But you trudge forward. And even though it doesn't feel like it did before, you plant a vineyard. And you have children. And you build a house and a city and in time a tower.
And maybe you make an altar. Noah did. The very first one mentioned in Torah. You offer something up. Even if you're not certain if it is an offering of gratitude or not. You offer something bigger than yourself because what happened to you was so much bigger than yourself.
And in time when you see the rainbow, you think of it differently. It is no longer a promise that you won't be destroyed. It is an observation that you weren't destroyed, that you won't easily be destroyed. That you are made of tough stuff. Earth and surging water. What you need to survive, to repopulate your world, you have carried with you all along in a wooden box that lurched and tossed but stayed afloat.
That is the covenant that now presents itself to you in its multi-colored glory. You will survive. You can never go back, but you can and will go forward. Stronger. Or weaker. Wiser. Different. This is the covenant.
And you will take this experience, in all its pain and complexity, and you will offer it up on your altar. You will say the blessing of the rainbow:
Baruch Atah Adonai, zocher habrit, v'ne'eman biv'rito, v'kayam b'ma'amaro.
Blessed is Yah, blessed is all this existence, that remembers the covenant, that testifies every day to your survival.
And then you'll breathe deeply and catch the scent of rain and, unafraid at last, will go back to planting your garden.