We are at one end of the rainbow, God is at the other

Shelach Lecha

Numbers 13:1-15:41

Joshua 2:1-24

Last week’s Torah portion included the mention of the menorah — a very special light that was positioned to illuminate the Israelites in the desert and then in the Temple in Jerusalem. This week there is a hint of how to look at light from a more mystical point of view.

When we see light, it usually appears as white. Of course, white is a mix of all the possible colors of light. Spin a wheel with a variety of colors and it will appear white. Hold the light to a prism and it separates into the variety of colors. Or let the light reflect through water vapor in the air and a rainbow appears. The rainbow recalls the Noah story and God’s covenant with humanity.

In this week’s Torah portion we are commanded to place fringes on the corners of our clothing: “Let them attach a cord with a thread of blue at each corner” (Num. 15:38). Jews keep this commandment by wearing a tallit, a prayer shawl, while at prayer. Very pious Jews wear an undershirt with four fringes all day long.

The fringes are white, reflecting all the colors of the rainbow. However, one fringe is techelet, a purplish blue. (Today many Jews no longer wear the thread of blue, since the precise procedure for making the dye has been lost. Some Jews, however, have begun to wear a thread of blue once again.)

Why this purplish blue? Why pick one color, when white contains all the colors?

According to Jewish tradition, techelet is the color at the far end of the rainbow, the highest energy color we can see, the edge before ultraviolet rays and invisible to the eye. It is the color that stands for God’s presence in the universe.

According to the Talmud (Menachot 43b), “Rabbi Meir said, Why is techelet different from all other colors? Because it is like the color of the sea, and the sea is like the color of the sky, and the sky is like the color of the divine throne.” According to one understanding of this, when astronauts travel into space, techelet is the last color they see before the blackness of space. We have a thread of blue because it represents God’s color, God’s presence. In a very mysterious passage, the Bible speaks about how 70 elders beheld God’s throne, and “under His feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity” (Ex. 24:10). What color is sapphire? It is a dark, purplish blue.

The thread of blue symbolizes God’s presence. Some have said that the word techelet comes from the Hebrew word tachlit, which means purpose. We see the thread of blue and recall God’s purpose in creating the universe. We are reminded of our role in fulfilling God’s purpose and completing creation. There is a source in our centuries-old law code that teaches we are to say the morning prayers when we can distinguish between the white and the blue in our tallit. There is another that captures one essence of this conversation about color — we know it is light enough to pray when we can recognize the face of the person sitting next to us at prayer or study. Being able to truly “see” the other allows us to proceed with life.

Several years ago I learned a mystical insight from a rabbi in Florida, Michael Gold. He asks, if purplish blue is at one end of the rainbow, what is at the other end? What is the most low energy color? The answer is red. The red of the rainbow is next to the infrared spectrum, more low energy that cannot be seen.

The Hebrew word for red is adom. And the Hebrew word for mankind is adam. If God is at one end of the rainbow, humanity is at the other end. Our job is to cross the rainbow, start with humanity and recognize the person who we are in dialogue with, and reach out to God.

Suddenly, the song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” makes mystical sense. Do you think the Wizard of Oz wears a tallit?

Rabbi Larry Raphael is the senior rabbi of Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco.