Over the last few weeks, I’ve been reflecting a lot on the tragic shootings in Las Vegas that left dozens dead and hundreds more wounded. We are left lost, grieving and searching for the “why” behind this heinous act, hoping that we will somehow find a sign that God still exists amidst the pain, a sign that gives us hope and strength during this time of difficulty.
In thinking about signs, I was reminded of the contemporary band Train and its song titled “Calling All Angels.” The lyrics go something like this: “I need a sign to let me know you’re here. All of these lines are being crossed over the atmosphere. I need to know that things are gonna look up, ’cause I feel us drowning in a sea spilled from a cup. When there is no place safe and no safe place to put my head. When you feel the world shake from the words that are said. I need a sign to let me know you’re here, ’cause my TV set just keeps it all from being clear. I want a reason for the way things have to be. I need a hand to help build up some kind of hope inside of me.”
I think that there is some unexplained power in signs and wonders in the world. Perhaps, for some, an occurrence is merely coincidence, while others believe that it’s a sign from God or something greater than ourselves.
There is something comforting in the idea that at the end of the flood narrative in Parashat Noach, there is a sense of hope that everything will be all right, as God says, “And when I bring the clouds over the Earth and the bow appears in the clouds [ha’keshet be’anan] … And when the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures, all flesh that is on the Earth” (Genesis 9:14,16).
After a storm, the rainbow provides us with a light that things will once again bloom, that life will continue. It’s a moment of tranquility and promise after the world was destroyed on account of the evil and lawlessness (hamas, in Hebrew ) in the world.
The commentators speculate at length as to why God used a rainbow as an eternal, covenantal sign following the flood. The Medieval French commentator Rashi suggested that the rainbow is a sign of justice and mercy. When God comes to judge the people, God will see all of us looking back up at the rainbow and have mercy upon us.
The Spanish commentator Ibn Ezra said that even though we don’t always see the rainbow, it is always present, hiding behind the clouds. And even though we might not be aware of its presence, God can always see the rainbow.
What I like about both of these interpretations is that the symbolism of the keshet (rainbow) is not unidirectional. It is as much for God as it is for us. Maybe it’s like saying the Shema. We say the Shema not only as an affirmation of our own faith in God, but as an opportunity for us to literally sh’ma (listen) — for us and for God to listen so that we know how to act in the world. It’s not simply enough to see or hear the sign; it must motivate us for how to behave, how to live.
I think that part of the power of signs is being able to recognize them before they happen. Sometimes the sign is colorful and beautiful, like the rainbow, and sometimes it’s a tragedy that serves as a painful reminder of when to act.
Gun violence is a real and existential problem that we, as a country, as a world, must confront head on, in a thoughtful way. Unlike with the next rainbow, we can’t afford to wait any longer for another horrific event to happen before we are moved to change our ways.
The keshet reminds us that God would never again destroy the world.
Yet I’m reminded that we can’t always wait around for a rainbow to reappear. More often than not, we must begin the hard work of restoring order and justice to a world filled with lawlessness and destruction. I pray that the signs of tragedy will compel us to build a more compassionate and kind world so that we will no longer have to know pain and sorrow. May all of our signs, one day, become like the rainbow, bringing radiant light of hope and love to the world.