Opinion | On Rainbows, Rituals and Coronavirus

Rainbow over stormy sky. Rural landscape with rainbow over dark stormy sky in a countryside at summer day.
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By Anndee Hochman

My friend was the first to spot the rainbow. Smaller than an index card, a wicket of wobbly lines — red, vermilion, lemon, green, blue — colored by a child’s hand, then affixed to the trunk of a twiggy maple in the woods near my Mt. Airy home.

A few feet away, another one, also on a tree, pinned to the bark with a square of clear contact paper.

And I remembered the post on my neighborhood listserve: an idea for folks to put rainbows in their windows or yards and along the miles of Wissahickon trails that have become the local antidote to going quietly nuts at home. A spontaneous scavenger hunt. A reminder, the post said, of “something beautiful that we hope will come after the storm.”

It’s hard not to wax biblical these days, with virus literally in the air and Passover on the horizon. Hard not to think of pestilence, of insomniac bargains with the Angel of Death, of swiping the doorposts (with bleach instead of blood) in hope that the plague will pass us by.

Only this time, the other side of the sea is no safer than our roiling shores. It’s not Exodus that will rescue us, but its opposite. Not flight, but staying put.

Here, sequestered with my people — life partner, 19-year-old daughter, the two dear friends who share our home — I find myself clinging to the familiar contours of routine. A nightly call to my mom. The New York Times word-hive puzzle each Saturday morning. My daily walk, even if I must zigzag to keep a safe 6 feet from passers-by.

In these precarious times, so many human rituals — baseball games, live theater, religious services — are on hold. Without those markers (first pitch, curtain up, rise for the Amidah), the hours blur and whole days (weeks, months) can slip through our hands.

I think about the Torah’s preoccupation with borders — clean and unclean, work and rest — and I understand more deeply the thirst for such clear lines. In ordinary times, I’m comfortable with uncertainty. Now, I want answers: How long can the virus survive on a plastic tub of spinach? Should I change my clothes after I visit the bank? What can I do, to guarantee that my loved ones and I won’t die?

I’m a Reconstructionist to the core, but I feel more frum than ever, my days limned by stringent new habits, the product not of commandment but consensus: Come inside, sanitize hands, then turn the lock. Take off shoes. Go to the kitchen; wash hands. Wash them again before eating. After eating. Once more, for good measure.

In the midst of such vigilance, we need rituals that nourish and sustain. After several dinner conversations centered on the latest alarming news about coronavirus, my daughter announced, “This is not good for our mental health!” and suggested a new practice: that we each bring to the table a piece of art we’d found in a virtual museum tour.

The first night, I brought “Ram’s Head, Blue Morning Glory” by Georgia O’Keeffe and talked about the juxtaposition of bone and blossom, solidity and transience.

Elissa found a Modigliani: a red-haired woman, one arm slung insouciantly overhead. And Sasha shared a Berthe Morisot painting of a delicate birdcage, which prompted us to talk about imprisonment and what it takes to crimp the spirit.

Mitzrayim, freedom; sanctified, profane. What is the blessing for using hand sanitizer? How about the one for wiping the refrigerator handle with a solution of one part bleach to 99 parts water? Rituals can bind us — think of a minyan praying Kaddish, an audience applauding a heart-stirring performance or a stadium of baseball fans jumping to their feet for the seventh-inning stretch.

But rituals can also enforce hierarchies and separations, suggesting that one person is holier than others, that this place is cleaner or safer than that one, that one nation is a haven while another is a hellpit.

Cleanliness is not godliness. The goal is to eradicate this spiky, sticky virus, not to demonize or shun the people who have it or who are vulnerable to it — which includes, we now know, all of us. This virus knows no borders. If it teaches us anything, let the take-home be how much we need each other.

In Genesis 9, that rainbow was not just an eye-catching arc in the sky; it was an emblem of tragedy — the flood that nearly gulped the world, a consequence for moral recklessness. The rainbow, says the Torah, was God’s promise that “there will never again be a flood to destroy all life.”

It’s hard to remember, on the verge of a spring that will surely swell the rivers, in the midst of a virus that plagues every portion of the globe, that this is not divine punishment, and that we are not passive in its face.

Those rainbows I spotted in the woods? God didn’t put them there. People did. The covenant, this time, must be a promise we pass from tree to tree, from country to country, across this seething world — a vow to reach out, even as the waters rise, and save each other.

Anndee Hochman
Anndee Hochman (Courtesy of Anndee Hochman)

Anndee Hochman is the author of “Anatomies: A Novella and Stories” and an essay collection, “Everyday Acts & Small Subversions.” She lives in Mt. Airy.

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