"Should we take the umbrellas?"
I gave my wife a double-take and then stole a swift glance heavenward. Had I heard right? Was she seriously suggesting that we needed an umbrella? If it were the ocean itself, the sky could not have been bluer. Perhaps she was getting light- headed from the penetrating rays of the sun.
"Are you okay?" I countered.
She was fine, thank you.
We alighted from the car and stood still for a long moment, there on top of the mountain of the Tsfat cemetery. The sun was foraying its way into every cranny in its path -- both human and geological. But, my wife reminded me, just minutes before ominous clouds had traversed the holy heavens of Northern Israel, and had emptied their rain-pouches faster than a Google search on mortgages.
"C'mon, I urged. I feel stupid with an umbrella. It's gorgeous now!"
Prayer book and Psalms in hand, we made our way to the steps and descended to some of the holiest burial sites on Earth. Two minutes later we humbly approached the grave of the 'Ari' (1534-1572). Here lay the remains of one of the greatest scholars, Kabbalists, and men of piety in our long and extraordinary history. An innocent billow or two speckled its way over the horizon as I stood on a boulder that I imagined was easily thousands of years old.
Adjacent to the tombstone was a written testimony by Rabbi Chaim Vital -- probably the greatest of all the Ari's disciples -- attesting to the larger than life qualities of the great Ari. Besides the customary laurels that always adorn memorials to the giants of our People -- child prodigy, unparalleled wisdom, righteousness beyond imagination, etc. -- this affidavit had a few additional praises that truly placed the Ari is a class of his own.
I'm a "people person," as in the alive kind. Give me someone who is vertical.
Not often do we find beings of flesh and bone who understood the languages of animals, conversed with (and even heard) angels, comprehended the most unfathomed secrets of the formation of the Universe and could accurately trace where many souls were reincarnated from. Heavy descriptions, to say the least.
Now, frankly, I'm not one of those who easily connects with the dead -- no matter how saintly they may have been. I'm a "people person," as in the alive kind. Give me someone who is vertical. Let me see his essence. Let me hear his wisdom and compassion. Let me touch his soul. That's when I feel.
But standing alone, at this hallowed station, I closed my eyes and imagined that I could actually speak to this guardian spirit of yesteryear. Perhaps he could somehow beseech the Above in ways that we mortals are lacking. In swift order, my thoughts filled with pleas for recovery for friends who are inexplicably ill -- some critically; for strength for their brave and noble caretakers, for guidance and serenity to all those who suffer... emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually, and for an end to horrifying world terror, tyranny, and tragedy. Finally, I asked the Almighty to at least shed some light on us so we might grasp, even slightly, the mysteries behind life's painful imponderables.
Unbeknownst to my now shielded vision, a formidable trail of stratus clouds had burst onto the foreboding scene and had suddenly darkened the once sun-filled sky. Transported to an ethereal mode, I felt the first rain drop. It landed softly on my left cheek. For a moment, I mistook it for a teardrop and it felt good. My connection was working, I thought.
I breathed deeply and contemplated further, but in seconds my reverie-like state was interrupted by a clap of reality. The thunder was deafening. The earth shook. It was... scary. And then the heavens just spilled out everything it had. I stood motionless in the epicenter of this uncontrollable torrent of acknowledgment (my interpretation) and just let the floodwaters wash over me. And I prayed.
Truth be known, I really had little choice. Protective shelter was nowhere near, anyway. So there was no point in running. Clothes will dry, shoes can be replaced, and these explosive tempests usually have a short shelf life, I thought, so I just stood there -- eyes closed and collar up -- and contemplated. It was something I had never done before in my life.
Settling into the car, maybe 12 minutes later, my wife and I looked like we had just completed a few dozen laps in the rinse cycle of a Maytag. We looked down on the floor and eyed our big and VERY DRY umbrella and burst out laughing.
"I know...I know... ALWAYS listen to you. You know best," I admitted. She smiled.
I flicked on the car heater and resumed our journey. The clouds, once mighty and proud, were exiting as quickly as they came. The winding road that slices its way through the rolling hills was as picturesque as ever. Like a boulevard out of heaven, it is a snapshot that few tourists ever forget. I tapped the brake in the hopes of extending my descent and looked around and "soaked" it all in.
And then I saw it.
It arrived without announcement or warning. It gave no notice or declaration. And it was big... very big... extending from one end of the horizon to the other. It was the rainbow to end all rainbows; every shade, every hue, in perfect alignment and larger than any I had ever seen. Oblivious to any other cars behind me (thankfully, there were none), I made a sudden stop. Continuing further was simply not an option. Not now.
I looked at Temmy sitting next to me. Her eyes had doubled in size and her mouth was stuck in the 'open' position. "So, that's what I must look like," I thought. But we said nothing. We didn't have to.
The appearance of a rainbow is an unusual event. Our Sages even instituted a blessing for us to make when we see one.
"Blessed are You, Hashem, Our God, King of the universe, Who remembers the covenant, is trustworthy in His covenant, and fulfils His word."
Well, this rainbow, so enormous and so perfect, deserved 9 or 10 blessings. And yet, seemingly paradoxically, Jewish law also teaches us that it is wrong to look at it too intently and to tell others to see it. Why would it be inappropriate to stare at one of God's most beautiful creations? Similarly, why should we not encourage others to enjoy, appreciate, and even marvel at a phenomenon so exquisite and complex?
The answer lies in our understanding of what the rainbow truly represents. The Torah teaches us that over 4000 years ago, God destroyed nearly all of mankind with the devastating waters of The Flood. But in the wake of its aftermath, He also promised that He would never again express His wrath in such global extremes. He then fashioned a rainbow as an eternal testimony to His eternal pledge.
So when a rainbow appears, its significance is multi-layered. While on the one hand it is a sign of relief and protection, it is also a reminder that had God not invoked his ancient vow; the world may once again have been subject to total destruction. That thought is so frightening, we are best off limiting our own visual experience of it, as well as keeping the witnessing of this sign to ourselves. Why upset everyone with the news that the world has plunged to such a sorry state?
Why would God choose such a peaceful and striking symbol, like a rainbow, to remind us that the world should have been destroyed?
Cognizant as I was of this curious duality of the rainbow, I made sure to 'take in' this dreamlike vision and etch it in my visual hard-drive, while still not dwelling on it for more than a few seconds. In a matter of moments we resumed our return trip back to Jerusalem.
While the spectacular image and the troubling import of the rainbow did not fade away from me for the days that followed, one question, one terribly troubling question, just would not surrender.
Why would God choose such a peaceful and striking symbol, like a rainbow, to remind us that the world should have been destroyed? Why would He create something so incredibly beautiful and then command us not to look at it too intently? And then admonish us not to tell others to also look at it? It boggled my mind!
The creative exposition of Nachmonides offers us a partial understanding, but still leaves us wondering. A bow, as it is utilized to shoot an arrow in battle, has its arc facing the enemy. In this case, the arc should be pointed at the world. But in keeping His promise to spare us, God inverts, if you will, the bow to face upward -- thus symbolically saving us from annihilation.
A stunning illumination, to be sure. But still, the question plagued me. Why choose something so beautiful and then prevent us from appreciating it?
I began to think of my personal rainbow sighting in its full context of the events of that day and I think I understand.
There is so much in life that we must struggle with. So many problems, so many challenges, so much that we simply cannot and may never understand. That is the nature of this world -- a world that is really so limited... so finite. And yet, we pray, we yearn, we long for that day when all the inconsistencies and incompatibilities will somehow make some sense. Suffering is hard enough, but when it so hard to understand -- as it usually is -- that just compounds the agony.
• I know so many wonderful people whose lives are dominated by their inability to simply make ends meet. When will they get some room to breathe?
• Families... great families... are torn to shreds by teenagers, spinning out of control. What is the solution?
• The world has, thank God, just about eradicated polio and measles and mumps. For how much longer will cancer, Alzheimer's, CP, MS, and ALS wield their horrifying toxins?
• Isn't there anyone on this planet who can solve the endless world-wide crusade against the Jews and the State of Israel?
There I was, standing at the grave of one of the greatest souls ever loaned to this planet. Surely God would hear me now. So I prayed. And I prayed hard. And I prayed strong. And I prayed wet. Maybe I would be privileged to gain a level of understanding of life's afflictions, so I could better cope and help others to, as well.
I now believe that, unbeknownst to me that day, my prayer was answered. The answer was the rainbow.
The rainbow, in all of its brilliance and splendor, really portends the world's deserving of destruction. God is telling us is to never forget, things are really never what they seem to be. It is like the rainbow. It may look radiant, but it is really a reminder of impending catastrophe. You may want to share it with everyone around you. Don't.
And conversely, there are surely things, events, experiences, and results that seem so very painful, tragic, and dreadful. Don't jump to conclusions. They may, in fact, be very congruent, necessary, and even valuable. But in our limited experience here, we just don't see it. We may never see it.
We need to look over the rainbow. We need to accept that our vision is short-sighted. Only He can truly understand.
Maybe leaving behind that umbrella wasn't such a bad idea after all.