We can’t mistake or ignore them. Like the rain, sun, winds, and snow, thunder and lightning remind us of our place in the moment, celestial bookmarks, if you will.
They assault our senses and extort our reluctant humility regardless of how clever and powerful we believe we are. Ancient cultures, their divinities and religious rites were by-products of the awe and terror their dramatic appearance commanded.
When the growing sophistication of monotheism began to dominate much of human society, its scholars and poets attributed a more subtle intent to them.
In the Talmud (Brachot 59a), we are taught to recite blessings on several varieties of natural phenomena such as comets and earthquakes. On thunder and lightning, the custom developed to recite two separate but related blessings because they may be two sides of the same coin. We also learn that “Thunder was created only in order to straighten the crookedness of the heart.” Moreover, the Mishnah** Berurah 227:5, considers it, rather than lightning, the more potent signal of divine power.
In his legal opinion on the Shulchan Aruch*, the 16th century Polish Rabbi David Ha-Levi Segal, also known as ‘Taz’, speculated that perhaps thunder’s roar makes it the dominant natural force, although he did not know how the custom of two blessings for these phenomena originated. He suggested that the blessing for lightning (Blessed Are You, Source of Life, Who Makes the works of Creation) can be recited in the presence of either thunder or lightning, particularly when they are witnessed together.
Now there’s a powerful image! Thunder and lightning as a vast cosmic defibrillator!
Sure, science has it own technical explanation for these ‘natural’ phenomena and in a sense, these ideas are comforting because they give us an illusion of control via ‘understanding’. But the Talmudic observation is also a lyrical way of reminding us to ask who or what created thunder and lightning and why? From the standpoint of religious faith, the answer is indisputable.
Though we appreciate a certain majestic beauty in the raw violence of nature’s elemental symphonies that play against bruised and sullen skies, how else, but by contrast, would we appreciate their alternate persona; that breath-taking sapphire clarity under a sun dodging wispy or pompous clouds? At the very least, it is convincing evidence for the myriad dualities of creation.
Illustrating this elemental blessing seemed simple at first; one need only show a dark sky with bursts of lightning, leaving the noise of thunder to the imagination. But further reading convinced me of its deeper significance. Tracing the history of our developing comprehension of thunder and lightning, I suddenly wondered, were there any recurring shapes or patterns in a storm’s bursts of lightning? Could they form some sort of heavenly message? Ok, ok, I know this whimsy is magical thinking. But then, I’m not a meteorologist with hard knowledge of the electrical and mathematical characteristics that might explain its technical structure.
So I let my imagination travel back to Mt. Sinai and the revelation of the Law. Could the thunder have been meant to call our attention to lightning’s shapes and patterns inspiring ancient minds to create the letter-forms of an early paleo-Hebrew language? I soon envisioned a rare single cell thunderstorm hovering over the mountain, wondering whether its winds, shaking the burning bush on the mountain, also whispered meaning into Moses’ ear? As the illustration progressed, I couldn’t resist allowing a tiny lightning bug onto it, illuminating the wonder and complexity of our existence.
Presenting the blessing in this light might be an improbable leap of faith, dismissible by many as nonsense, yet I’d like to think that transliterating this divine ‘skywriting’, has brought us a long way in understanding one of the countless chapters we’ve marked in the Book of Life.
* Codification of Oral Law of Torah by Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi,180-220 CE
**The Code of Jewish Law, written in Safed, Israel and published in Venice by Yosef Karo in 1563-57.
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Tags: blessings, Book of Life, Brachot, burning bush, creation, duality, faith, Law, letterforms, lightning, lightning bug, meteorology, Mishnah, Moses, Mt. Sinai, paleo hebrew, science, Shulchan Aruch, single cell, skywriting, storm, Talmud, thunder, transliteration