White light, rainbows, and the soul: a teaching on parashat Noach

19360722113_02a6f45582_zWhen our ancient ancestors saw rainbows, what must they have imagined? Today’s Torah reading suggests that they saw rainbows as God’s mnemonic device, a reminder of the promise that God would never again try to destroy all life.

Today most of us would probably say that rainbows exist because of scientific principles. Raindrops refract sunlight, dividing it into its constituent wavelengths. White light becomes red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet.

Rainbows take something ordinary — plain white light — and reveal the extraordinary hiding within it. All of those colors in the spectrum are always already part of every sunbeam, but we don’t see them until the raindrops refract the light.

And that scientific explanation takes me right back to theology. The kabbalists, our mystics, use this as a metaphor for God. God is singular, God is One — like white light. But for those who have eyes to see, God’s qualities fan out like the colors of the rainbow.

Hidden within the oneness of white light are the seven colors of the rainbow. And hidden within the Oneness of God are lovingkindness, strength and boundaries, harmony, endurance, humble splendor, generativity, and Shekhinah — what our mystics called the seven most accessible qualities of God.

This year, the image of the rainbow teaches me about balance. When white light meets raindrops we see the spectrum of colors in perfect balance across the sky. No one color drowns out the others: they’re all there. All of these qualities are part of God, and in God too they need to be in balance.

Too much gevurah (judgement) might lead to a harsh decree. Too much chesed (overflowing lovingkindness) might lead to emotional floodwaters. But when all of God’s qualities are in right balance — when all of the colors of the rainbow are present — then the earth can know peace.

The rainbow reminds me of the need to accept and integrate disparate parts of ourselves: our lovingkindness and our ability to draw boundaries, our balance, our ability to endure. We who are made in God’s image also contain all of these colors of self and soul, and we need all of them.

Sometimes we see our spectrum of inner qualities most clearly through the prism of tears. Whether we weep in sorrow or in gladness, times of deep emotion offer opportunities to see ourselves more clearly. When tempestuous internal weather meets the light of one’s neshama, the light of one’s soul, that light can be refracted through tears — just as literal sunlight is refracted through rain.

What kind of rainbow is revealed in us when the light of the neshama is refracted through tears? What does it feel like to become aware of those internal colors, to accept our own range of emotion and spirit so that the rainbow of our whole selves can stretch resplendent across our inner skies?

This is the d’var Torah which Rabbi Rachel offered yesterday for parashat Noach. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)

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