Thursday, September 11, 2008

Blessings for a Hurricane (Jewish Week, Sept 12, 2008)

Did you know that there are blessings for a hurricane?

It seems rather strange that we should utter words normally reserved for expressing deep gratitude for something so destructive. After all, there is no blessing for an arsonist, mass murderer or for a bull in china shop.

I was thinking of this as I watched satellite images of the gathering storm known as Gustav recently, with Hanna and Ike waiting in the wings.

Insurance companies call them “acts of God” and so do we — but some take that notion too far. One right-wing rabbi recently noted that Gustav’s very name invokes the destructive Hebrew month in which it was born: the “Gusts of Av,” he called it. Then he went on to suggest that Katrina was a divine punishment for the Bush administrations’ support for the withdrawal from Gaza.

The appropriate blessing upon witnessing awe-inspiring natural phenomena is: “We are humbled by You, Source of Divine Breath, Ordainer of Eternity, who fashions Creation.”

This blessing is appropriate when seeing lightning, along with other extraordinary phenomena like comets, lofty mountains or broad rivers, or when experiencing an earthquake.

There is another blessing for thunder, also applicable to major storms: “We are humbled by You, Source of Divine Breath, whose Power energizes the Cosmos.”

After the storm, when we witness the results of that awesome destructiveness, we state simply, “Praised are You, the Judge of Truth.”

The question remains: Why all these blessings for such horrible scenes? Rabbi Harold Schulweis, having witnessed the horrible aftermath of the 1994 Northridge earthquake, distinguished between the two different elements of divine power manifested in the tremor: the natural power of the quake itself, as expressed in the divine name “Elohim,” and the human acts of love, heroism and healing, a manifestation of the appellation Adonai. So when reciting the blessings, we aren’t merely expressing humility in the face of cosmic fury, we’re channeling all the love and courage that we can muster, as we prepare to fulfill our task of promoting healing.

I like Schulweis’ approach, but it concerns me that his need to focus on the loving Adonai part betrays what almost seems an embarrassment at the awesome destructiveness of Elohim.

I have no theological problem with God being the author of these natural weapons of mass destruction. After all, the atom, the building block of Creation, has itself become a means for devastation. Creation and Destruction are ultimately one and the same. The terms “order” and “chaos” are just our arbitrary effort to place natural ferocity into human categories. But from a God’s eye view, there is really no difference. “From a distance, there is harmony,” penned Julie Gold in the song that eventually became a Bette Midler Grammy winner in 1991. This song, written by a Jew, echoes that most Jewish of hopes, for unity and harmony, a vision that grows in the heart of everyone who has ever recited the Shema. From a distance, it all makes sense, all of Creation is in harmony.

The same year that “From a Distance” came out, my first son was born. I can recall seeing the first ultrasound image of Ethan, five months in the womb. A living, breathing network of darkened circles, all surrounding a static black hole, which the technician informed me was his eye.

And now, as we look at the earth from a distance, what do we see? The image of swirling clouds taken from a satellite, with a static black hole in the middle: the eye.The baby and the hurricane, microcosm and macrocosm: they are mirror images. Each one breathes, each one exists only through the most extraordinary confluence of natural forces, each is born of warm water, each one is loud, demanding our full attention and capacity to love; each drinks voraciously — and then spits out. And each one lives out its lifespan, short but “heroic,” makes its indelible mark on the world and then moves on to the realm of memory.

The beautiful intricacy of the human organism is matched only by the equivalent beauty of the organism we inhabit: the system known as earth. That’s why we’ll say on the High Holy Days, “Hayom harat Olam,” “today the cosmos is conceived.”

Not made — but born.

In here. Out there.

The Christian theologian Sally McFague goes as far as to suggest that the world is God’s “body,” a notion echoed in kabbalistic sources. In that case, we are part of what makes God breathe: we are part of God. The earth is not the setting for the human adventure; it is the earth’s adventure that we are participating in, as extras. Each of us is a fleeting speck on its landscape, while the earth spins and dips its way through the eons for a purpose no mere human can discern.

The Breath of the Universe can flatten trees like tooth picks or cause a baby’s first gurgle. It is all the same, and it is miraculous. What evokes awe from a distance moves us to tears from up close. The Breath of the Universe flows through us.

And that is why we say blessings for a hurricane.

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