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The Real Message of a Rainbow


“This is the sign of the covenant, … I have set My rainbow in the cloud … And the rainbow shall be in the cloud …” (Genesis 9:12-16)

Based on a Chassidic Talk (a Sicha) by the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson

Presented with permission, as translated and published by Sichos in English.

From Sichos In English, Volume 23, p. 245-248 (excerpted from Hisvaaduyos, Sicha of 1st of Cheshvan, 5745, pp. 527-529, 535-537). Published and copyright © by Sichos In English.

[clarifications by the Director of are inserted in square brackets]

The rainbow is the sign of the covenant

Parshas Noah [beginning at Genesis 6:9] relates that after Noah and his family and two each of every species of living being (or seven in the case of clean [kosher] animals) were rescued from the flood which destroyed the world, G-d promised Noah that He would establish a covenant to never again bring a flood [to destroy the world]. Chapter nine verse 12 then states: “And G-d said: ‘This is the sign of the covenant which I give between Me and you and every living creature that is with you, for everlasting generations.’ ” The next verses tell us that this sign of the covenant never to destroy the world is the rainbow.

Rashi, quoting the words “for everlasting generations,” notes that the word for generations in Hebrew — “doros” — is written without the letter “vav.” He writes: “[The word doros] is written defectively (i.e., without the letter vav), because there are generations which do not require a sign, for they were perfectly righteous, such as the generation of Chizkiyahu [Hezekiah], king of Yehudah [Judah], and the generation of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai [who revealed the book of Zohar].”

Rashi is saying that the word “doros” — “generations” is written with a missing letter to teach that there are some generations (“doros”) in which the sign of the rainbow is missing, for, since they were completely righteous, they did not need the sign of G-d’s assurance never to again to bring a flood [to destroy the world]. Such generations, Rashi says, were that of Chizkiyahu and Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai.

Perplexing points in Rashi’s explanation

1. Rashi writes that “there are generations which do not require a sign, for they were perfectly righteous.” In other words, since the punishment of the flood [which happened in the days of Noah] could never happen to the completely righteous, there is no necessity for a sign — the whole idea of the sign being that although there could and should be punishment by a flood (because of man’s evil conduct), there would not be a [punishing] flood because of G-d’s promise to Noah.

Now, the [worldwide] flood came upon the earth only when the world’s spiritual level was at its absolute nadir [lowest point], as written, “G-d saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth,” and “all flesh had corrupted its way upon the earth.” Until the world had sunk to this lowest of levels, punishment by flood upon the whole earth was not contemplated by G-d — even though the people were not “perfectly righteous.” We find, for example, that people in Enosh’s generation practiced idolatry, and yet G-d did not contemplate destroying the entire world, until “all flesh had corrupted its way upon the earth.”

It therefore seems most peculiar that the impossibility of punishment by flood should apply only in the case of the perfectly righteous, and not also in the case of the incompletely righteous, or the average person, or even the normally wicked — as long as they have not sunk to the level of the generation of the flood.

2. Rashi’s examples of the perfectly righteous are “the generation of Chizkiyahu, king of Yehudah [Judah], and the generation of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai.” This, too, is puzzling, for:

i) Why need Rashi bring any example of the perfectly righteous; it seems a simple enough concept. Indeed, when Scripture says at the beginning of parshas [the Torah section] “Noah” that “Noah was a righteous man,” Rashi does not explain what “righteous” means, for it is self-understood that a righteous person is one who fulfills G-d’s will. Yet in this case, Rashi finds it necessary to bring examples of the perfectly righteous. Why?

ii) The five-year-old to whom Rashi addresses his commentary has not yet learned about Chizkiyahu and Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai, and thus his teacher will have to tell him who they were, and when they lived. When the student will hear that they lived after the times of Moshe Rabbeinu [Moses our Teacher] and King Dovid and King Shlomo [Solomon], he will be astonished: Were all the generations until King Chizkiyahu on such a low spiritual level that without the covenant, the sign of which is the rainbow, they would have been punished by a world flood?!

The same question applies to the generations between King Chizkiyahu, who lived in the times of the First Bais Hamikdosh [Holy Temple], and Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai, who lived after the destruction of the Second Bais Hamikdosh. Is it possible that all these generations needed the rainbow as a sign that they would not be punished by flood?

3. There is also a question that the five-year-old living in Rashi’s generation has: When he sees a rainbow, the sign that there will never again be a flood destroying the earth, he wonders: He lives in Vorms, Rashi’s city [in Germany], and sees Rashi’s yeshivah, Rashi’s grandsons’ — the Baalei HaTosfos’ — yeshivos, in which students learn Torah. Similarly, he sees that there are many synagogues and study-halls full of Jews learning Torah and observing mitzvos.

How is it possible, he wonders, that such a city should need a sign forestalling punishment by flood? Moreover, the student will be further astonished when he sees a rainbow again, a few days later (especially if it is winter), for, he will wonder, what has happened in these few days to warrant another sign that a flood will not come as punishment? Yet Rashi says nothing to provide an answer to such a question.

The explanation of the rainbow’s message

Rashi explains (Bereishis [Genesis] 9:9) the necessity for a sign that never again will there be a [punishing] flood as being because “Noah was worried about engaging in being fruitful and multiplying” — i.e., he was worried that if people would again sin G-d would again bring a flood and destroy the world. Noah was not willing to engage in procreation “until G-d promised him not to destroy the world again; and so He did. And at the end He said to him [to Noah], ‘Behold, I agree to make a confirmation and a strengthening of the covenant for My promise, and I shall give you a sign.’ ”

Now, a student learning Scripture and Rashi’s commentary understands that just as Noah was worried about the destruction of the whole world, he was presumably also worried about the destruction of part of the world. For, since every person in the world after the flood was his descendant, he would have been concerned that not even one should be destroyed. G-d therefore promised him not just not to destroy the whole world [for the purpose of punishment only], but not even a small part of it, and not even to bring a less severe [act of exclusive] punishment than loss of life.

Only when Noah received such a promise was his mind set at rest. Accordingly, the student living in Rashi’s times will not be astonished to see a rainbow in Vorms although it is a city full of [observant] yeshivos and synagogues. For although Vorms [at that time] is a place in which the people act properly, according to G-d’s will, and therefore a rainbow is not needed as a sign that a [punishing] flood will not come, other places may be different, and the rainbow is a sign saying that a flood will not be sent [exclusively] as punishment to that particular place for its improper conduct.

A rainbow a few days later simply means that yet another place is deserving of flood as a punishment — but will not receive it because of G-d’s promise to Noah. A place in which the residents behave properly, in contrast, does not need a sign for itself, for besides G-d’s promise to Noah, G-d anyway would not punish the righteous together with the wicked [see Genesis 18:22-32].

In sum, then, a rainbow is a sign that [an act of exclusive] punishment will not befall even a particular part of the world, including punishment of a less severe degree than loss of life. Accordingly, a generation that would not need a sign would have to be on the loftiest of levels… Rashi therefore must explain that such a generation consists of the perfectly righteous.


Ask Noah explains:

The flood of Noah was decreed by G-d upon the world for the sole purpose of punishing all of the people in the world, except for Noah and his sons and their wives. After the flood, G-d saw that the world could not endure if it continued to be held to that level of retribution for sin. Therefore, G-d created the rainbow as a reminder to restrain His attribute of strict judgment, so He would not consider such a decree in the future. No one in the generation of the flood had any thoughts of repentance while they were engaged in their sins.

(See our page The Covenant of the Rainbow), and that is why they were all punished by G-d in His wrath, and all at once.)

It was not until  after the flood that G-d introduced the desire for repentance into the hearts of mankind, and thus He would never have the same level of wrath toward the sins of any person. The pre-flood level of G-d’s wrath warranted that a flood would be sent for the sole purpose of punishing the wicked.

After the flood, G-d’s wrath is softened – at the very least by the sign of the rainbow as a reminder, if need be. Therefore when He sends a destructive disaster upon a part of the world, or even upon a single person, it is not only for the purpose of punishment. There is always an aspect of good that is also included and accomplished, even though it may be temporarily hidden from the eyes of most people. Also see also our page A Moral Code to Unite All Mankind, which includes the Rebbe’s teaching that “Hence, everything that occurs in the world, even the apparent bad, such as natural disasters, must ultimately have redeeming good.”

For example, in the past 15 years or so, we have see many unusually destructive natural disasters in the world, and the international response to this, led by the United States, has been to send full-scale ARMED FORCES resources to HELP the victims and to help them rebuild. The Rebbe said that this was part of the beginning of the fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah 2:4, “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.” The Rebbe also said this was beginning to be fulfilled when the U.S. and the former Soviet Union ended their nuclear arms race, and funds previously dedicated to building nuclear weapons were diverted to improving agricultural capabilities.


Comments from a Noahide visitor

“I understand this at my level much better now, and I see how right the explanation is. Thanks a lot. I see examples of this in our own time. For example, the great tsunammi in the Indian Ocean brought out a lot of good in the senses which the Rebbe mentioned. It also brought out to the world the existence of a paedophile town in Sri Lanka, and some other sex-industry atrocities in Thailand and other Asian countries, regarding the children, which now are being corrected thank G-d!”