Sunday, September 10, 2017

We Look On In Awe - A Dvar Torah on the Power of Nature

This weekend, Florida faces Hurricane Irma. It is striking as one of the strongest hurricanes ever to strike the US mainland and has already devastated a number of islands in the Caribbean. In Florida, millions of people have been asked to evacuate to more secure locations, hundreds of thousands more are joining them. Million more people will be impacted. This morning, the first ever tropical storm warning was issued for Atlanta, Georgia.

Hurricane Irma is hitting just after Hurricane Harvey brought extensive damage and extreme flooding to southern Texas, almost certainly causing the most damage of any weather event in the history of the United States, dwarfing the damage done by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It hasn’t been a good few weeks.

On Monday, people in Iowa woke up to a bizarre sky. It was as if the light spectrum had shifted. Everything was tinted orange. This strange situation was caused by the jet-stream carrying the vast quantity of smoke from wildfires in Montana and Canada eastward across the nation. The wildfires have been so substantial that one could easily see them from space.

Speaking of space, last month, we looked into the sky and saw the sun blotted out, a full solar eclipse. Day turned to night. It has been quite a month of special events, most, unlike the eclipse, ones that we would rather not have had.

Last night, one of the most powerful earthquakes to strike Mexico, registering 8.1 on the Richter Scale. An unknown but substantial number of people were killed. Tsunami warnings were issued, fortunately, not coming to fruition.

In Southeast Asia, in India, Bangladesh, and Nepal, at the same time that Harvey was inundating Texas, many thousands of people were killed by flooding.

In our modern world, we often feel like we have mastered nature. Indoors, our air is conditioned. We can keep it 72 degrees Fahrenheit all year round, if we’d like. We have weather forecasts that can tell us well in advance whether or not it would be a good idea to go camping over the coming weekend. We can see hurricanes coming from a thousand miles away and offer cones of probability of exactly where they might strike. We even have some ability to estimate when earthquakes might strike or volcanoes might erupt, though usually within a much longer period of time. We can institute flood control measures and build our buildings, bridges, and roads to adapt to wind, water, rain, and the shaking caused by significant earthquakes.

But for all of these things, the hurricanes, the great floods, the fires, and the earthquakes, the primary things that we can do are the same things we have always been able to do, namely get out of the way or hunker down before or during an event and deal with impact as best we can after it is over. Today, we simply have a much better ability to effectively do those things.

The power of the natural world is far beyond our own. In truth, we are not all that unlike our distant ancestors, looking on in awe. We see in Psalm 29:

Ascribe to Adonai, you heavenly beings,
    ascribe to Adonai glory and strength.
Ascribe to Adonai the glory due God’s name;
    worship Adonai in the splendor of God’s holiness.
The voice of Adonai is over the waters;
    the God of glory thunders,
    Adonai thunders over the mighty waters.
The voice of Adonai is powerful;
    the voice of Adonai is majestic.
The voice of Adonai breaks the cedars;
    Adonai breaks in pieces the cedars of Lebanon.
God makes Lebanon leap like a calf,
    Sirion like a young wild ox.
The voice of Adonai strikes
    with flashes of lightning.
The voice of Adonai shakes the desert;
    Adonai shakes the Desert of Kadesh.
The voice of Adonai twists the oaks
    and strips the forests bare.
And in his temple all cry, “Glory!”
10 Adonai sits enthroned over the flood;
    Adonai is enthroned as ruler forever.

Our tradition sees these powers of God as part of God’s nature. The nearer to God’s presence, the more powerful the natural wonders.

We find in 1 Kings 19, where Adonai is speaking to Elijah:

11 Adonai said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of Adonai, for Adonai is about to pass by.”
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before Adonai, but Adonai was not in the wind.
After the wind there was an earthquake, but Adonai was not in the earthquake.12 
After the earthquake came a fire, but Adonai was not in the fire.
And after the fire, a still small voice. 

God is in that voice, the feeling of compassion that we feel when we look upon all of those suffering in the aftermath of the great winds, the shattered rocks, the quaking, and the fires, [the flooding too, that’s not in the story of Elijah because it takes place on a mountain].

The powers of the natural world inspired awe, fear and trembling. We are mere mortals, as we are reminded this time of year. Life is so precious. Our blessings so fleeting. The winds and water, the fire and the quaking, can take all of them away. They can wipe entire cities from the face of the earth. As we see the images of the events ravaging our nation and our world, we are humbled.

We can see the hurricanes approaching on radar. In Texas, friends received text messages about the rising water and the evacuation. Several streamed video live on Facebook pages as the waters were rising. But in the end, when the real flooding came, for one friend, after he had been told to shelter in place and the waters rose above the first floor of his home, it was a boat that saved him and his family. It was as if he was living in an ancient story, rescued by a boat amid a flood. Indeed, the natural world humbles us as it did our ancestors.

Today, we think of all of those continuing to suffer from the aftereffects of Hurricane Harvey, whose homes and communities were devastated by flooding. We think of those whose communities were impacted by the earthquake in Mexico or which are affected with the wildfires that continue to burn in the western portion of our nation. Most of all today, our thoughts are with the people of Florida facing Hurricane Irma.

May our prayers for their safety be joined with theirs.

Right after Psalm 29 notes that God is enthroned above the flood, that God controls the awesome power of the waters, to use to concept from the creation narrative, the waters above and waters below the land upon which we live, the Psalm concludes with words with which we traditionally conclude the blessing after meals:

“Adonai oz l’amo yitein, Adonai yivarekh et amo va-shalom.”

11 Adonai gives strength to God’s people;
    Adonai blesses God’s people with peace.

God can manipulate the waters, even, according to our tradition, parting them and holding them at bay. God thunders. God can bring the winds. God can cause the world to shake. God is the one who controls the great floods being held back so that we might live and thrive in their midst. All of this is beyond us.

Yet God also helps to give us the strength to deal with the aftermath and bring peace into our lives. Tonight O God, we hope and pray that you’ll bring shalom into the lives of all of those whose homes and lives are endangered. May our prayers be as that still small voice for them, echoing across the vast expanse, helping those who suffer know that others care.

Kein Yehi Ratson, May it be God’s will.

And let us say, Amen. Shabbat Shalom

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