Sunday, March 30, 2008

Feeling the Power

The Jewish Week, January 30, 2004

Last August, my family traveled to the great parks of the American West. During those two weeks, we experienced incalculable manifestations of divine power. I carried around a blessings card provided by the Jewish environmental organization Hazon and challenged my kids to see if we could recite every blessing of wonder before the trip was done. They told me to "chill," but then joined me in the quest.

The first stop is Yellowstone. All around me is the most beautiful devastation I have ever seen, miles and miles of ashen, burnt-out trees destroyed by the wildfires of 1988, a conflagration that became catastrophic because generations of our hubris prevented nature from taking its course. In the brush there are young trees miraculously sprouting up amidst the devastation. I recite the blessing on fragrant trees, boray atzei besamim.

I stand by Yellowstone Lake looking out on Saturday night as wildfires rage over the east entrance to the park. Two intermingled bursts of flame lighting the distant sky look like some heavenly havdalah candle. We see lots of bald eagles and falcons, and herds of bison all across the hillsides. So I recite the blessing for extraordinary creatures.

We drive through the Grand Tetons, where snowcapped mountains pierce the sky — good for another blessing, oseh ma’ase breisheet, "Who makes the works of creation." Mountains have the power to awaken an overwhelming sense of the sacred.

Bryce Canyon, with its human-like rock formations, reminds us of how human hearts can turn to stone. And to be in at the canyon floor of Zion National Park, with walls of rock on every side, is to know what it must have been like to march through the parted Red Sea. The natural appears supernatural out there; perfection and balance are painted on an enormous canvas. The writer Linda Hogan has written, "The cure for soul sickness is not in books. It is written in the bark of a tree, in the moonlit silence of night, in the bank of a river and the water’s motion. The cure is outside ourselves."

By the time we reach the Grand Canyon, we have recited each blessing on the card, except the one for a rainbow. Looking over the south rim we see a beautiful sunset, and then we hear a thunderstorm. Sure enough, over to the right, miles and miles from the thundercloud, is a rainbow. It is about 7 o’clock on Friday evening. We recite the final blessing and Shabbat begins. Now I put down the blessing card and God rests.

Back on the first day of the trip, just after I watched Old Faithful burst out with steam shooting into the sky, I tried to call home for messages but my machine didn’t pick up. Only later did I find out why. While I was experiencing the greatest power display on earth, the entire East Coast had been thrown into the most massive blackout in history. Fifty million people stood helpless in the August heat, victims not of divine power but of a terrible man-made hubris.

Where were you when the lights went out? Were you in the subway? In an elevator? Were you sweating, exposed to the elements with no AC? Were you at the airport, grounded? Or stuck in the air? Were you in a hospital, at the mercy of tightly rationed auxiliary generators? Did you feel vulnerable? Did you fear terrorism? Did you understand, did you finally understand just how limited we are?

The fragile power grid is a perfect symbol of our folly, our presumed power, and of how instantly it all can come tumbling down.

On Sept. 3, Congress reconvened and Louisiana Republican Billy Tauzin, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, wasted no time in opening two days of showcase hearings. Ironically, a temporary audio failure in the hearing room muffled most of what Tauzin had to say.

We have all been humbled by the limits of our authority. The world’s greatest superpower has thus far failed to defeat small guerrilla armies of terrorists, despite its military capability to shock and awe. We have touched the moon and seen through Hubble’s eyes the farthest reaches of the universe, but we lacked the wherewithal to check the underside of Columbia’s wing before re-entry. Again and again we’ve been reminded of our limits.

When the lights went out I was at Old Faithful, where there were no subways, no high-rise elevators, no cable TV; where the sky was being lit up by the stars and the forests illumined by a thousand degrees of conflagration. How I wish I were back at Yellowstone right now, bathed in the mist of the geyser, warmed by the glow of a hundred-acre inferno a couple of miles away. Things were a lot less complicated there, where the deer and the antelope play, cradled in the womb of God. How terrifying it is to have the world on our shoulders.

But we’re all big boys and girls, and God his given us the keys to the Hummer. God has given us the intelligence to split the atom and re-cork a wine bottle. God has given us the power to topple a dictator. And we have done it.

We pray for guidance that from the current volatility that we be able to forge a better world for our children. And we give thanks. For God’s power is everywhere to be found. In each mountain, each lovely creature, each rainbow — and each human embrace.

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