by R. Gidon Rothstein
Hashem’s Reciprocity and the Rainbow
Last time, we saw R. Arama argue the Flood had taught humanity a permanent lesson, Hashem has the power to punish severely. In return for people always remembering Hashem’s power to punish, and because humanity has three different offshoots, Hashem promises never to destroy them all at the same time.
R. Arama says it is unjust to punish a group unless each member committeed the sin [I am not convinced the Torah thinks so, a topic we will leave for some other time]; post-Flood, humanity will descend from Noach’s three different sons. Different as they are (and their descendants will continue to be), Hashem can be sure humanity will not all sin at the same time, and will never therefore be liable for worldwide destruction The rainbow signals the promise never to flood the world.
Except the rainbow seems natural, making it an apparently poor choice as a sign of Gd’s covenant. Even Ramban, whom R. Arama terms among the most famous believers (meaning: someone with impeccable faith credentials, whom we could never suspect of adopting Greek or rationalist ideas for no good reason), accepted the scientific (Greek) view the rainbow was a function of the interaction between the sun’s rays and a moist atmosphere. How can a natural phenomenon be a sign from Gd?
Rainbows, Natural and Supernatural
R. Arama takes pains to stress he accepts rainbows are natural. He adduces verses which make the point as well; for an example from Parshat Noach, he notes Hashem says et kashti natati, I have given My rainbow, which sounds like it had already existed. It fits here because the rainbow appears (naturally, and I have skipped his long discussion of the science of rainbows as he saw it) when atmospheric conditions are shifting, when clouds are in the sky but weak, and the sun shines strongly.
Those conditions come with weather which varies between two places close to each other, one with the conditions for rain and clouds, the other for sun. The rainbow assures us weather from one place need not affect the other–regardless of one place’s being hit with destructive, punishing rain, Hashem will still protect nearby areas which do not deserve the punishment.[Lest we pass over this too lightly, let’s say it again: R. Arama holds Hashem included rainbows in Nature, which could then later, because of people’s actions, be turned into a good sign of a continuing message. He implies a Nature implanted with many options for Hashem to communicate from within Nature, aside from when Hashem imposes on or breaches Nature.]
The Rainbow as Model for Other Permanent Promises
R. Arama adjures us not to take the covenant of the rainbow lightly. It is the most lasting of all the covenants, oaths, and promises Hashem has made to people, is the foundation of our trust Hashem will redeem us from exile (a later promise).
The haftarah (Yeshayahu 54;9) for Parshat Noach speaks of the flood as an oath Hashem had taken, words R. Arama thinks were addressed to a despairing Jewish people (in Yeshayahu’s time). As the realization dawned their sins were dooming them to punishment, they feared/expected it to be permanent. As a sign Hashem’s promised connection to the Jewish people can never be sundered, Yeshayahu reminds them of the flood and in the next verse says mountains and valleys may move, but not Hashem’s connection or kindnesses for the Jewish people.
(He says more, and his words seems particularly directed at his audience: he is telling them the Jews of Yeshayahu’s time might have thought of their troubles as worse than the Flood, feared there would be no redemption for them. If he was speaking to people who saw themselves as dedicated to observance and still stuck in a seemingly endless exile, his words are encouragement, in addition to textual study and insight.)
Reacting to a Rainbow
Now he returns to the Talmudic statements from Berachot 59 about how we should react to a rainbow with which he opened the sha’ar. R. Alexandri reports R. Yehoshua b. Levi thinks a person must fall on his face in awe at the rainbow’s evidence of Hashem’s greatness and glory, Who brought the world into existence, has the power to destroy it or support its permanent existence. Jews the West (Israel, in the Gemara’s language) rejected the idea, because it feeds a popular error, which sees the rainbow as independent, worthy of worship and respect on its own.
Where, instead, the rainbow should give us a bit of anxiety, in R. Arama’s view. A natural world happened however it happened but likely will continue to exist forever (as Aristotle assumed). Knowing Hashem created the world means we avoid the seas overflowing their boundaries only because Hashem continues to hold them in place, continues to support His statement of Bereshit 1;9, yikkavu ha-mayim, let the water gather to one place. The rainbow spurs us to a blessing including the words “kayyam be-ma’amaro, Who remains steady in His statement.”
The Tower of Bavel
Moving away from the Flood and rainbow, R. Arama notes the three sons of Noach seem to separate immediately after disembarking from the Ark. Their reactions to Noach’s drunkenness, in R. Arama’s example, show they are developing different experiences of the world, different perspectives and concerns. They begin populating the world, their multiple streams of activity the way we ensure the human race would never deserve annihilation at the same time.
Humanity also diversifies at the Tower of Bavel. R. Arama thinks they started on the project to keep them all together, as one political entity. They looked to the sky (as the Torah tells us), saw the heavenly bodies all functioned with one purpose, and decided they wanted to do the same, to build one cohesive entity, to which they would all permanently belong. They could see no better plan than for lowly humans to adopt the strategy of those higher beings.
Their mistake lay in making the idea an end of its own rather than a means to shaping their souls most felicitously. They stopped focusing on Hashem and His service (as the heavenly bodies do), paid attention instead to a good plot of land (as the Torah says, they found the valley of Shin’ar), and starting their unifying building.
Among the errors they made in the course of construction was subjugating their intellets wholly to the project of building the Tower. Their intellects, however, are a higher power, which makes it wrong to press them solely into the service of a lesser one (an old objection of his, which we saw back when he wondered whether the world could have been created to serve human beings alone). Almost worse, they thought their building would improve them in the larger ways we are supposed to grow ourselves: tackling the problem of building a large tower, maintaining a functioning polity which united them all, would make them into people worthy of joining the heavenly bodies, they thought.
Development is Also Personal
Hashem scattered them to enable them to hear their personal inner intellectual soul, which all people have (and are supposed to use in their own individual ways). They would realize Hashem wanted multiple paths around the one common human goal, developing our intellects to be more Gd-like. They were not wrong to think something connects us all, they went wrong in thinking their commonalities should be adjusted to fit a Procrustean sarcophagus [I am giving the final edit to this on the fourth yahrzeit of mori ve-rabi R. Aharon Lichtenstein, zt”l, and he used the phrase more than once; I insert it here in loving memory], to build a unitary society, occupying only a small part of the earth [in a statistic I find endlessly fascinating, the world population today would fit in the state of Texas if only all people lived at the same density as Manhattan, by far not the most densely populated city].
Hashem wanted them to populate the earth, I think because they would find a greater range of paths (partially by facing varied challenges in settling geographically diverse parts of the earth), all helpful in tapping as much of our intellects as possible, giving us as much insight into how to become more Gdlike. [As I write this, it occurs to me R. Arama lived in the early years of the Age of Exploration; his ideas here may reflect some of that.]
R. Arama closes with the note Parshat Noach repeated Parshat Bereshit, in the sense both discussed how Hashem created the world anew. Except Noach’s version lasted.