“The Rainbow, She is the She’chee’nah [the Feminine Face of the Divine]” (Zohar, Vol. 2, folio 66b), which in turn is Elo’heem" (Zohar, Vol. 1, folio 61a), the very attribute of the unknowable, un-nameable Mystery that called all of creation into existence. Lacking symbol and remnant, we are left with direct revelation when we see a rainbow, to remind us that this direct connection is always there, always available, always accessible.
They say of the second-century Rabbi Shim bar Yo'chai that "in all of his days, he never saw a rainbow" (Talmud Yerushalmi, Berachot 65a). On the surface, this is a good thing. It is complimentary of the great master, for it demonstrates how truly great he was that in his merit God was never moved, so to speak, to wipe out the entire world. The absence of a rainbow in his time implied that Bar Yo'chai was so high a being that there was no need to remind anyone about the covenant God made with the earth after the Great Flood of Noah's era, the symbol of which reminder is none other than the rainbow (Genesis 9:12-16). In fact, if we do see a rainbow, taught the third-century Rabbi Yehoshua ben Ley'vee, we should recite: "Blessing Source are you, O Ado'nai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who remembers the covenant" (Talmud Bav'li, Berachot 59a), and it means the world in that moment had become so corrupt that God was about to delete the whole shebang again, but then remembered the promise to Noah, never again to destroy the earth with a flood (Genesis 9:11).
So, on the one hand, the appearance of a rainbow seems to be not such a good thing. And on the other hand, we are also taught that it is not respectful to glare at a rainbow because the rainbow represents the presence of the She'chee'nah, the earthly manifestation of the feminine "face" of God (Zohar, Vol. 2, folio 66b), as we see in the vision of the prophet Ezekiel: "Like the image of the rainbow that will form in the cloud in the day of the rain, so is the vision of the image of the arcing glow, the image of the likeness of the Glory of God...." (Ezekiel 1:28). Judaism then offers us two seemingly opposing perspectives on the rainbow, a negative one and a positive one.
So is rainbow a good sign? A bad sign? It depends on our perspective, on how we choose to see the rainbow. Do we choose to see the rainbow as the life-affirming presence of the She'chee'nah? Or do we choose to see the rainbow as the life-threatening close-call of the apocalypse?
Have you ever seen a rainbow? Of course. Everyone has. At least once in their lifetime. And in every age, every era, every paradigm. Certainly even the saintly Rabbi Shim'on bar Yo'chai must have at least one time or another seen a rainbow. We all have. But which rainbow? Which perspective of the rainbow? The Judgment quality of the rainbow as a reminder of God's agreement not to destroy the world? Or the Compassion quality of the rainbow as a reminder of the ever-present doting of the ever-loving She'chee'nah. Rabbi Shim'on never saw the judgment kind of rainbow in his days; he only saw the She'chee'nah kind. After all, it is only in the Zohar, in which most of his mystical teachings occur, that you will find the association of rainbow with She'chee'nah. It seems as if most of us back then presumed the worst at the sight of a rainbow, and only one sage and his school saw the best and the most beautiful when they beheld a rainbow.
But how did Rabbi Shim'on reconcile his perspective of rainbow with its more severe "Reminder of the Covenant" attribute as it is clearly described in the Torah? No problem, wrote the 16th-century Kabbalist, Rabbi Yehduah Loew of Prague. "Everything exists," he taught, "not so much by virtue of God desiring that it exist, but more so by virtue of God not desiring that it be destroyed." And that is the message of the rainbow, he writes (Chidushei Agadot, Vol. 1, folio 159, Mesechet Ketuvot). In other words, the rainbow is like God declaring that, "You can't make things bad enough for me to destroy the entire world." That is huge love and grace, and far from the usual interpretation of covenantal judgment. And thus whether you see the rainbow as She'chee'nah, or Covenantal Reminder, seeing it in this perspective you cannot go wrong, and thus Judaism actually does not have two perspectives on rainbow, but one! They are both pretty much the same thing. It's just a matter of semantics: Divine Grace, or She'chee'nah. And that is the fresh perspective introduced by Rabbi Shim'on bar Yo'chai. And thus, Rabbi Shim'on used the rainbow as a litmus test in determining who was worth discussing Torah with. As we see in the following story:
In the third century, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Ley'vee was doing a shamanic journey thing and in that journey was visited by the spirit of Elijah the Prophet. The two began to discuss issues of Jewish law and practice, and eventually they got into a dispute around some ruling made a century earlier by Rabbi Shim'on bar Yo'chai. Elijah then suggested that Rabbi Yehoshua journey to one of the caves in the Galilean mountains where Rabbi Shim'on used to teach and meditate, for perhaps they could do a ceremony there to invite the spirit of Rabbi Shim'on to join them in their discussion and help set things aright. So Rabbi Yehoshua got up and trekked north to Mount Meron, settled into the cave of the late Rabbi Shim'on, and resumed his visit with Elijah who met him there in spirit. The two then performed a ritual that invited the spirit of Rabbi Shim'on, and after a while, they felt his presence.
"The greatest sage of his generation is here with me," Elijah proclaimed to Rabbi Shim'on. "I introduce to you the venerable Rabbi Yehoshua ben Ley'vee. And he wishes to discuss with the master some matters of ritual law."
"The greatest of his generation?" Rabbi Shim'on challenged Elijah. "Has he ever seen a rainbow?"
"Yes, I have," replied Rabbi Yehoshua.
"Then I have nothing to say to you," said Rabbi Shim'on as he departed and returned to the heavenly realms (Midrash Bereisheet Rabbah 35:2 and Midrash Tehilim 36:8).
But in fact, the Talmud tells us that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Ley'vee had actually never seen a rainbow in his time (Talmud Bav'li, Ketuvot 77b), implying he was indeed a highly righteous being in whose merit the near-demise of the world was averted, according to the party-line perspective. He only said "Yes" out of humility! Why, then, would Rabbi Shim'on not want to discuss spiritual matters with him? Why did he dismiss him so quickly?
You see, when Rabbi Shim'on asked Rabbi Yehoshua whether he had seen a rainbow in his time, neither response would have helped. Saying "No" would mean Rabbi Yehoshua considered himself a holy man, which was an unholy thing to do, and saying "Yes" would mean Rabbi Yehoshua was not saintly enough that the world would continue to exist by his merit as it did by Rabbi Shim'on's merit; not great enough for him to be worthy of carrying Divine Grace. So either way, Rabbi Yehoshua was screwed. Remember, it was none other than Rabbi Yehoshua ben Ley'vee who taught: "One who sees a rainbow should fall on their face...and recite 'Blessing Source are you O God, Who remembers the Covenant,'" referring to the disapproving association of the rainbow, rather than its loving association with the She'chee'nah, and it was this perspective of rainbow upon which he predicated his choice of answer, in which case neither Yes nor No was the answer Rabbi Shim'on would accept from him.
"Did you see a rainbow?" Yes is the wrong answer. No is the wrong answer. The correct answer is: "No, I saw the She'chee'nah !" For She fills our world adorned as myriad varieties of translations of those qualities of God which God chooses in any given moment to reveal of Itself. Abraham knew this long ago. He did not separate his consciousness of God-transcendent from his consciousness of God-immanent. He experienced God in Creation no less than he experienced God in Revelation. While engulfed in the divine presence under the sacred oaks of Mamre, he did not see his redirected attention at the three wayfarers as an interruption of his communion with God but rather as a continuation (Genesis 18:1-2).
Now we can understand the perplexing Mishnah attributed to none other than the very same Rabbi Shim'on bar Yochai: "One who is walking along the way engrossed in Torah and interrupts his study of Torah to proclaim, 'O, what a beautiful tree!' 'O, what a lovely field!' endangers his soul" (Mishnah, Avot 3:7).
What!? I endanger my soul if I interrupt my study of God's Torah to appreciate the beauty of God's Creations???!!
Yes. Precisely. The key word in the Mishnah is "interrupts." If the shifting of my consciousness from Torah to Tree or bunny rabbit is indeed an interruption...then I have severed Creation from Creator, distanced God Imminent from God Transcendent. Sort of like the story of the third-century Rabbah son of Rabbi Hunah who returned home disappointed after trying to study under the great master, Rabbi Chis'da, and vowing never to return. When his father asked him why, he explained that Rabbi Chis'da was not teaching holy matters at all - only trivial matters: "He tells us things like 'When one goes to the House of the Chair [toilet], one should not strain too much, because the rectum has teeth-like glands [hemorrhoids], and one may endanger oneself by bursting them!'" Said his father: "He is teaching about the workings of God's Creations, and you call that trivial?!" (Talmud Bav'li, Shabbat 82a).
Postscript: The Talmud (Ketuvot 77b) recounts that when it was time for Rabbi Yehoshua ben Ley'vee to journey to Paradise [he went up alive, but that's a whole other story], he wandered happily about in his newfound world and grew even more joyful upon discovering the late Rabbi Shim'on bar Yo'chai himself, in person, seated with his disciples and expounding deep mysteries of beyond the beyond. Rabbi Yehoshua was elated. Wow! What an experience this would be, he thought, to finally be able to sit at the very feet of the great master in person, in the very same realm as he, and without any séance! In that moment, Elijah the Prophet showed up and began shoving people aside to make room for Rabbi Yehoshua ben Ley'vee as he ushered him toward the front. "Make way for Bar Ley'vee!" Elijah shouted as he nudged Rabbi Yehoshua closer and closer to the front where sat Rabbi Shim'on. "Make way for Bar Ley'vee!"
And finally, there he stood, face to face with the revered master himself.
"You are Bar Ley'vee?" asked Rabbi Shim'on.
"I am indeed," replied Rabbi Yehoshua.
"Tell me, then...have you ever seen a rainbow?"