In the space of my lifetime I find it amazing to think how far technology has advanced. As a child I remember once a week we used to gather around the phone for a crackly conversation with my grandparents in Israel. It was expensive and the quality was poor. Today, I switch on my computer and I can have a conversation with my grandparents, which includes live video and costs me nothing. I remember a world before the internet and one without mobile phones, let alone blackberries and Iphones. Advances in technology have made things which we only dreamed about possible. Is there anything we humans cannot do?
And then, a virtually anonymous volcano in Iceland begins erupting and we humans are reminded just how powerless we are in the face of the awesome force of nature. European flights were brought to a standstill and there was nothing we could do about the volcanic ash filling the atmosphere. All of our technological know how and scientific innovations were no match for the power of the natural world. For several days the skies were empty as nature reasserted herself.
In our modern, technologically advanced world we can often forget our relationship with, and reliance upon, nature. Our Biblical ancestors were well aware of the power nature held over them. In this week’s Torah portion, God spells out what will happen to the Israelites if they follow the laws and observe the commandments (Leviticus 26:3). The reward begins with nature: ‘I will give you rain in its season, and the land will increase its yield and the trees of the field will give their fruit’ (Leviticus 26:4). This was the ultimate prize which God could provide; the people were rewarded with nature’s bounty.
Today, in our concrete cities, we often forget about our relationship with nature. We do not feel the direct connection to the earth and the natural world in the way that our ancestors did. Our ancestors prayed to God and hoped that they would receive nature’s gifts. We still do this in the second paragraph of the Amidah. In autumn and winter we pray: ‘making the wind blow and the rain fall’, asking for the natural world to provide for the earth’s needs; but do we really think about what this request really means?
The volcano in Iceland was a stark reminder to our urban society that all of our progress can be brought to a stand still by the power of nature.
This week’s Torah portion sets up a very clear relationship of cause and effect. If the Israelites observed God’s rules, they would be rewarded with nature’s bounty. We may reject this conception of reward and punishment, but we can all recognise that there is a relationship between our actions and the natural world.
From the very beginning of creation we have had a responsibility for the natural world. Adam and Eve were commanded to till the earth and tend to it (Genesis 1:28), while Noah ensured the survival of all life on this planet (Genesis 6:8-9:22). There has always been a triangular relationship between God, the natural world and the people. God created the world and we were given a role within it. By protecting nature and our planet we serve God. If we can fulfil this task then surely we will be rewarded with a natural world which will provide for us.
Reading our sacred texts and remembering the way in which our ancestors related to nature can serve an important role in influencing the ways we live our lives today. The Icelandic volcano reminded us of nature’s power. I would not suggest that this was a Divinely ordained punishment, rather it seems that our planet was offering us a warning and reminder. By obeying God’s commandments perhaps we can receive a natural reward.