I learned a few months ago not to mess with Israeli kids who grew up in the Mamlakhti-Dati (state religious school) system. I teach a course on Jewish prayer once a week to eighth graders at the local Jewish day school where I live. One day, the class and I were discussing the theologian, Abraham Heschel’s idea of radical amazement, our experience of awe and wonder at God’s world, particularly nature. Heschel explained that Jewish prayer prevents us from taking creation for granted by awakening our radical amazement and thus our gratitude to God, using words, music and ritual. I asked my students to give me examples of everyday occurrences in nature and the brakhot (liturgical blessings) that we use to heighten our radical amazement. My one Israeli student, a boy who is visiting America for a couple of years with his family, called out in Hebrew, “barak!”, lightning, then proceeded to recite the appropriate brakhah, the one that thanks God for being the Creator of everything. “No,” I responded, “The correct brakhah is the one that thanks God whose power and might fill the universe.” He shook his head, said to me, “Attah lo tzodek,” – you’re wrong- then grinned broadly. So did the rest of the class, as they braced for the Jewish day school eighth grade version of “Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader?” Certain that as their wise old teacher I was right, I half jokingly told him, “OK, if you’re right, I’ll give you ten dollars.” We opened to the back of a copy of our prayer books to look at a list of common brakhot, and sure enough, my student was correct. Actually, we were both correct, for as the Talmud and later sources explain, early in Jewish liturgical history people had the option of using either brakhah upon seeing lightning; however, it gradually became the custom to use the one thanking God for creation in general. Being stumped by one’s students is a teacher’s best form of flattery, as long as one is not stumped too often. I happily donated ten dollars to the school’s library fund and told the boy’s proud mother what had happened.
Late one evening last week I was preparing for nighttime. As I finished dinner with my family, the Western skies filled with those dark clouds that seem to come from nowhere. They rolled in thickly and with the speed of a rattling pot of boiling black, grey and green soup threatening to splash its scalding contents on you. I love watching the build-up, the rush of sound, light and rain, and then the cathartic aftermath of storms. I pulled a chair out onto the covered steps of my house to watch and listen to nature’s fierce presence from a safe and comfortable distance. Almost in a matter of minutes, light drizzle succumbed to a torrent that pelted us and flooded the street, as the wind gusted rain rudely into our house and we ran to shut every window. Just as quickly it subsided again into light rain and a lightening sky.
During the skies’ brief explosion, I leafed through a prayer book, trying to remember which brakhah to say upon seeing lightning; unsurprisingly, I had forgotten what my student taught me. The instructions were right there: one recites the brakhah thanking God for creating everything, even though God’s power and might that fill the universe seems to be a much more specific, focused liturgy expressing amazement and offering praise for lightning bolts.
I decided to recite both brakhot, for each says different things about God and the world, and one is not merely a subset of the other.
One common translation of the first brakhah refers to God as the Author of creation. The divine Author has certainly written a majestic work full of incomparable beauty that arouses in us awe inspired by deep joy. A bolt of lightning dazzles our eyes, lightens the night sky and possesses enough electricity to power a small town, if not more. A bolt of lightning is also potentially deadly, and it illustrates how we at times have to read that same work of divine creativity with awe that is inspired by terror. We are constantly confronted by the exultation and the suffering which are the paradoxical, uncanny afterbirths of nature. Sunsets stand head-to-head with super storms and tornados, babies are born at the same moment that the ocean’s womb closes over entire communities during a tsunami. My students are only beginning to understand that the natural world is filled with these dualities emerging mysteriously from God’s oneness. I too have to remind myself that radical amazement includes my embrace of the terror as well as the joy.
I long ago gave up believing the biblical idea that nature is literally a tool of God’s reward and punishment. I know too much science and see too much pain of innocent people caught in nature’s ferocious path to accept this idea anymore. If anything, we are punishing ourselves, perhaps irreparably, by playing with nature and its delicate balances, as global warming gradually cooks us. When I recite both brakhot for lightning I am not necessarily making a theological assertion. I am adding one small piece to our people’s ancient hymn about the awesome mystery of God’s world as it is, and about each of our tiny, yet blessed places within it.