In this week’s parsha, Noah, God makes two promises to Noah after the flood. The first occurs after Noah sacrifices all of the pure animals he brought with him in the ark as offerings to God. God then promises to no longer curse the earth because of humanity. This manifests in God promising to allow the natural cycles of the world to cycle through their appropriate periods. “For the rest of the days of the Earth, the time for planting and harvesting, winter, spring, summer, fall, day, and night will not cease,” (Genesis 8:21-22). The second promise, which is perhaps more famous, is symbolized by the rainbow. God promises to never again wipe out humans and other life on earth, and uses the rainbow as a reminder to God to keep the promise. After some genealogies, the Torah tells the story of the Tower of Babel where the people, all of one language, get together to build a tower. God responds by introducing different languages and scattering the people. The choice of a rainbow as symbol of the covenant gives us insight to the cause of the flood. It also explains God’s motivation for punishing the builders of the Tower of Babel by making them speak different languages.
The Torah teaches us that the sin of the generation of the flood was thievery. The Talmud of the land of Israel explains that people would steal small amounts from one another: so small that the thievery was not contestable in a court (Talmud Yerushalmi Bava Metziah 4:2). Phrased differently, they would disrespect the individual property of another, assuming the boundaries between individuals were not important.
A different sin associated with this generation, midrashically, is that different species, including humans, were engaged in cross species sex (Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 108a). Again, we see a disrespect of boundaries and difference, here between species. In the parasha, we learn that Noah took one pair of every impure animal and seven of every pure animal. There is a midrash (Tanchuma, Buber edition, Noah 11) which explains that the pure animals are those which did not engage in cross species sex. These are the animals which Noah later sacrifices to God, which then prompts God’s first promise to no longer destroy the earth and its cycles. To be clear, this is not a story which promotes segregation of types. After all, the ark is the ultimate example of bringing together every type. Rather, it is a story which warns against the destruction of unique identity, culture, and species.
The story of the Tower of Babel contains parallels to the flood. The entire world comes together with one language and one set of words (Genesis 11:1). This is despite God’s blessing (Genesis 9:1) that people should fill the entire world: that is, to spread out and create individual identities. Instead, the people build up instead of out, creating one national identity, and removing unique qualities of culture and language. God punishes, so to speak, the generation by giving them different languages and different locations. Here the people did not mix inappropriately, but, rather, failed to form differences in the first place. However, those sins seem to be similar, as mixtures are not a category if there are not differences in the first place. And the creation of differences is a fundamental part of God’s creation in Genesis, creating each thing according to its type.
In response to the sins of mixing inappropriately and failing to create difference, of violating identity, God violates the identity of the world. God remixes the separated waters of above and below, as well as the separation between land and water. The punishment matches the crime. When the punishment is finished, God promises to never destroy the cycles again. God is prompted to make this promise when Noah offers those animals that never violated their identities by mixing across species. The rainbow becomes a perfect symbol of this. A rainbow is the result of taking a mixture of frequencies of light (i.e. white light) and separating them spatially. It is a return of colors to their individual identities. The rainbow reminds us that as much as we might which to blend individual identities between people, species, times, and cultures, and languages, there is also a value to maintaining difference and individuality.
However, the Torah teaches that the rainbow primarily serves a reminder to God. While a rainbow is a separation of identity, it is not as discrete as we may originally suspect. It is a actually a spectrum, where the borders between colors are fuzzy. It is a reminder that even in maintaining unique identity, some blurring of boundaries is also a value to be upheld. This reminds God to not be so quick to destroy the world on the basis of identity blending, just as it reminds us to not be too casual with knocking down boundaries. May we all appreciate and keep those qualities which keep us as, both as individuals and groups, different. But may we, and God, also recognize and appreciate those places where differences can and should be blended like the colors of the rainbow.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום