5774 — Erev Rosh haShanah — Introducing the Rainbow

09/09/2013 at 09:43 Leave a comment

“Bending Our Eyes”


Erev Rosh haShanah — 5774

Neil F. Blumofe

4 September 2012

I love to be outside in the dry mountains of West Texas.  Before the thick heat that immediately appears with the rise of a brilliant daybreak, I have a practice to wake long before, in the declining dark cooling of the expanding morning and sit in stillness – preparing — silent meditations and written reflections, interlaced with my daily morning prayers.

Before we are overpowered by the intensity of the unremitting heat of daylight, there is a moment of quietude, a moment of soft exhalation that opens our senses and encourages our enduring dreams considering the moon as it still shines, yet knowing that it will soon be displaced and overwhelmed by the rowdy boisterousness of the entering sun.  In this sweet and precious early time, I appreciate my eyes getting used to the first emergence of the day – before small glimpses and discrete moments are lost in the searing glare of an all-encompassing swelter.  I try to receive each day deliberately, appreciating it for the flimsy yet wonderful moment that it is, as it invariably opens and closes.

We are here now in the fledgling, opening moments of the New Year.  No matter the insecurities, difficulties, and shortcomings that we have carried over across the borderline into this reset of sacred time – no matter the glaring headlines that may trouble us the moment we reactivate our phones, or the news stories that jolt us into a creeping unease of the day the instant we open a paper, there is no denying that at this moment, in the freshness of time, before our new Books of Life become mottled and blotchy and damaged, all things are possible.

How quickly do we forgo the majesty of our intentions in the hectic navigation of each day?  When the sun rises and the heat is on – how soon do we put intentional deliberations and preparations behind us and bury ourselves in getting done what needs to get done, racing exhaustion to the end of our to do lists.  When do we look at our moments of vacation or days of rest, not even certain that they were once real, and that if they did once exist, that we were even there?

There is a teaching in our Jerusalem Talmud of a great sage named Shimon bar Yochai, who became one of the greatest mystics of our tradition.  It is said about Shimon bar Yochai that in his generation, no one ever saw a rainbow (YT Berachot 65a).  We may know about rainbows from the story of Noah, which we will learn in our community in a few short weeks.  After the deluge, God presents a rainbow to Noah as an everlasting sign that the world will not be destroyed by flood again.  The rainbow represents a covenant – a promise – that no matter how base the world again descends, that water will not spell its end.  Our tradition guides us to believe that because of the strong merit of Shimon bar Yochai, this warning of the rainbow was unnecessary – that in his time, the world did not come close to needing that natural phenomenon to draw attention to even the remote possibility that God was considering our destruction again, albeit by different means.

As we read closely about the rainbow in Noah’s time, we discover that the rainbow is not primarily for us to marvel – rather, the rainbow is for God to remember the covenant – v’haytah hakeshet beanan ur’itiha lizkor b’rit olam bein Elokim u’vein kol nefesh chayah b’chol basar asher al ha’aretz – that God will look upon the rainbow to remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature – of all flesh that is upon the earth.

According to this reading, God presents the rainbow in our midst, when there is a reason for God to check the Divine action and for our preservation, slowly count to ten.  According to this idea, the rainbow appears when our world is in peril.  The rainbow, as beautiful as it may be for us to see, is really a mechanism for God as a self-reminder that everything is not lost and that there is still a chance for us – not only to survive, but to thrive. As Rabbi Yehudah Loew wrote in Prague in the 16th century – “everything exists not so much by virtue of God desiring that it exist, but more so by the virtue of God not desiring that it be destroyed.”

However, counter to this idea, when we see the rainbow, we are reminded of kindness and of love and ultimately, of our lives cradled in God’s grace.  There is a blessing to be said when we happen to see a rainbow – our words reflecting our desires – reminding God that God has promised to be faithful to the covenant of safeguarding us as God’s creation and that we will not ever arrive at the end of the rainbow, knowing that at that moment, in our quest for a pot of gold, most often ending up as mere fools at the end – we are always connected to God and an integral partner in the covenant.

For we know that our demise could happen at any time.  Yet, today our thoughts are renewed for this world – hayom harat olam – today is our celebration of this spectrum of light, this multicolored reflection of light in drops of water that exists, just for a moment.  As we gaze on this miracle of our lives, we know that nothing sustains and that we are blessed just to witness today before we too evaporate and disappear. Our texts call out to us – hayom, hayom – today is the day that we have – let us be full within in it, even if we are not leading the lives that we once thought we would – even if we feel distant from our dreams and don’t recognize our essential purpose in this world.

The English Romantic poet, William Wordsworth, wrote in 1802 –

My heart leaps up when I behold

A rainbow in the sky;

So was it when my life began;

So is it now I am a man;

Out in West Texas, I appreciate the moments that I have in the morning’s cool stillness, when the moon is still prominent in the sky, because I don’t see rainbows on a regular basis — for if I just invested my hope every time I saw a rainbow, I would be caught off guard, and ill-prepared to respond in a timely way to its message.  We know that our world is at risk and yet, we can be motivated to not run from what scares us and to not escape the hard work that we must do in order to move one foot ahead of the next.  The serenity before the blaze of the day is essentially my regular rainbow – my recognition that all time is borrowed and that every action of ours is a trial and a test and a way to counterbalance atrocity and evil.

Our sages teach that Shimon bar Yochai and his son escaped to a cave to flee the deadly Roman authorities.  They lived in hiding for twelve years, until Elijah the Prophet came to the entrance of the cave and announced that the coast was clear.  When they left the cave, they found the state of the world intolerable to them – manichin chaiyei olam v’oskim b’chayei sh’ah.  Shimon bar Yochai could not withhold his judgmental gaze, as our Talmud records, “every place that they cast they eyes, was immediately incinerated.”  Their world was collapsed into black and white, and right and wrong – there was no leeway in their consideration – there was no room for a rainbow to form (BT Shabbat 33b).

In our lives, we take ourselves way too seriously.  We too, do not leave room for a rainbow – for a marvel of hope to form for us in the lonely wilderness in which we walk.  We are more like Shimon bar Yochai than we care to admit – our penetrating stares and our fiery judgments jumping quickly from our lips – our motto consistently “ready, fire, aim.”  In our deserts, we constantly walk into blind canyons, unwilling to temper our hot and brash dispositions and our negative attitudes, and we go through life beaten down by the high temperatures, and beating others down, not seeing the momentary beauty that exists, as elusive as it might be.

Beyond the issues in our land and in Africa and the Middle East and throughout the world – past a calculated response or a non-specific red line, tonight begins Rosh haShanah, and a rainbow of a day that appears in our world – before we take on teshuvah and the Day of Yom Kippur, we have this moment, where we can look around at the glory that surrounds us and we can renew our covenant with all that is meaningful.  We can step away from the dark perplexing clouds that have settled immediately on our horizon.  We can proclaim the wonder of our soul as we find a moment to come to calmness.  The sun has yet to rise – and here we are underneath the starry sky, preparing for the intensity of what will surely be.  Rather than Shimon bar Yochai, we can be like Moses, after he came down off of the mountain – not with conflagrant eyes that incinerate – rather with a luminous face that glows, telling the story of our renewed connection to the ineffable and describing our moment in the timelessness of the Divine Encounter, come what may.

And even if we find ourselves amid the ruthless warriors of bad faith, we can look at another and reflect tenderness.  Let us consider another idea: there were no rainbows in Shimon bar Yochai’s time because his absolute positions prevented them from forming.  Shimon bar Yochai refused to give the others the benefit of the doubt – he walked around with a chip on his shoulder, always right, unwilling to have the patience for the messy imperfections that we find in our friendships and in our relationships.  If we allow ourselves a chance to unclench our hearts and unlock our minds for even a moment, we can then behold the multivalent and vivid colors that are all around us – the colors of the rainbow, teach our mystics, which represent the shechinah, or the presence of God — the colors that surround us, the shechinah, which pleasantly beckon discipline and prospect within us while creating a temperate climate around us.  The colors of each of our temperaments – the magnificent array that we each are, in this time, before we fade away.

As I have written in West Texas: From different corners of the basin, the hooting owls announce the rising of the sun, and the twittering answers in kind, and we climb to the top of the hillside to sound our useful shofar in alternating blasts to join with the trajectory of the morning – and next door the man snores, unaware of our moment to communicate what we know to those standing expectant, instruments held high, in the west. 


When I wake, I witness the boundless bird in the sky, ebbing and flowing over brush and then dancing with ease over the glistening strings of gossamer, into the bright reaches – and I passed an advanced scout already this morning, a grasshopper in my eyes, overturned and lifeless outside of my thick wooden door.  I hear the noises of the camp, just on the other side, and as the sun rises, I prepare to meet them – I, a giant of this land – transversing this broad colorful circle that has no end — this ring of time that admits drops of an eternal promise through a celestial prism. . 

And as Kermit the Frog sings: I’ve heard it too many times to ignore it/It’s something that I’m supposed to be./Someday we’ll find it.  The rainbow connection.  The lovers, the dreamers, and me.  – la da da di da da do, da di da da di da da dooh.


Shanah Tovah – may we see the miracle of the rainbows all around us.  May we pledge ourselves to an exceptional existence, fighting back hot embarrassment that flows from our past mistakes, or the burning judgment of others that allows us to avert our own responsibility.  May we be kind as we are present, offering shelter and shade to one another, as we stand exposed in the fierce gaze of this moment’s light.

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LETTERS LASTING FROM ISRAEL — December, 2012/January, 2013 5774 — Rosh haShanah Day 1 — The Rainbow Past the Whirlwind

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