Whakatane is one of those attractive New Zealand towns, a sunny place known for the highest numbers of sunshine hours in NZ. It’s situated in the beautiful Eastern Bay of Plenty and has a plentiful selection of Maori historical sites, native forest, a stunning river and an abundance of yellow fin tuna. It’s not that far from Auckland and I remember it well from my life in NZ.
This week the sunny town was obscured by a tragedy unfolding some 48kms off its shored and clearly visible from the town itself on White Island. Whakatane is known as the gateway to the island. I never visited the island but even from afar it had a menacing quality. There was something eerie about this place; it had an unsettling, mystical atmosphere, punctuated by the white wisps of smoke above it. Its lunar, brooding landscape is a sharp contrast to the pellucid waters and rich marine life surrounding it. But what has always attracted visitors to Whakaari (its Maori name) is the world’s most active marine volcano and the fact that you could walk its rim, reach into the mouth of hell itself.
In 1914 it took the lives of 10 miners from an ill-conceived sulphur mining factory. On Monday 9 December 2019 at 2.11pm it erupted with a fatal ferocity, claiming the lives of Australians and New Zealanders and others still unaccounted for. The stories emerging are harrowing, heroic and heart-breaking; families on an exciting adventure wiped out including 16 year old Berend Hollander and his thirteen year old brother Matthew; groups of friends from the cruise ship, Royal Caribbean Ovation of the Seas losing their mates; the searing wounds of the injured, the bravery of the rescuers.
In a week of so much shame from the senseless and horrible deaths in a kosher supermarket in New Jersey, the impeachment proceedings against an American President, the indictment of an Israeli PM, the apparent failure of another world environmental forum and the fires and a smoke haze over Sydney, it was the pain of this drama that caught much of Australia’s attention.
In my mind it’s not just about the proximity of our close neighbours, the Kiwis. It’s more about the deeply human dimension of this tragedy. It’s about that ‘there but for the grace of God’, that sense that we so easily might have suffered a similar fate if not for the ‘hashgacha’ or providence of God. So many of us today set off on cruise ships, embark on exotic and sometimes dangerous adventures to wild and untamed places. And maybe that’s just the point – in an age of techno-hubris when we see ourselves as masters of the universe, the world reminds us of our fragility and vulnerability. As Hamlet reminded Horatio: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”. In other words, human knowledge and experience is ultimately limited (philosophy here could well mean science).
The Torah has long reminded us of the boundaries of the human mind, the limits of the human heart. King David, a keen observer of both the human heart and the awesome power of God’s universe called on as to: “Ascribe to the Lord glory and might… The voice of the Lord is powerful… breaks cedars… hews out flames of fire” (Psalm 29).
Those flames of fire that shot out from the depths of the White Island volcano remind us of the seismic eruption at Mt Sinai thousands of years before. The description of the Revelation at Sinai is reminiscent of a volcanic blast: “All of Mt Sinai was smoking because God has descended upon it in the fire; its smoke ascended like the smoke of the furnace and the entire mountain shuddered exceedingly.” (Exodus 19:18)
At Sinai the people were warned about not getting too close to the action: “You shall set boundaries for the people around… saying ‘Beware of ascending the mountain or touching its edge; whoever touches the mountain shall surely die” (Ibid, 12). Sadly, there was no warning for the tourists visiting White Island. There’s surely a warning to us all to have greater respect and reverence for God’s creations and not just to rely on our experts, our knowledge or information.
As I flew into the smoggy, dangerous heart of Sydney this week, it was another telling reminder of our limitations. The thick cloud enshrouding the city was a warning about our tenuous hold on this delicate planet of ours. Drought and gargantuan bush fires are largely beyond our control (bar those fires started by pyromaniacs). But our human responsibility and capacity to limit the dangerous conditions exacerbating the threats to our environment are squarely in our hands. Even if you’re a climate sceptic you can surely acknowledge our contribution to the world’s woes. The Midrash presciently has God telling Adam and Eve to look after his garden and preserve it for future generations. Our government’s response at the UN Climate Change Conference seems pretty parev at this point. Not the passionate stance that the Torah expects of us, to be custodians and guardians of Gods global environment: “to work AND protect it” (Genesis 2).
It’s an awesome planet we live on rich in colour, dazzling in its diversity, dangerous in its power, frightening in its fragility. It’s a fearsome responsibility we have to approach it with respect, treat it with care and honour it with our presence.