There is one blessing I have been saying a lot this trip:
Baruch atah Adonai eloheynu melech haolam oseh ma’aseh bereshit
Blessed are you, Adonai our God, sovereign of all time and space, who creates the works of Creation.
It is the blessing our tradition teaches we say whenever one sees an object of natural beauty. Traveling through southern Utah and northern Arizona there are many such opportunities. (I say it a lot at home as well whenever I can see Mount Rainier or the Olympics.)
One opportunity was sitting at night at my campsite looking up at a sky filled with stars. It was the most impressive night sky I have ever seen. Looking at that sky I think I understood the story of Abraham in Genesis for the first time–Abraham, having left everything behind to begin a new life, is unsure of his choice and the future ahead. God tells him to look up and assures him that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky.
The sky the Torah describes is not the light-polluted urban sky we usually see, but the desert sky undisturbed by human-created light. Looking at the sky of the high desert in Utah I understood how such an image can be comforting–giving one a sense that one is not alone, and that the impossible (how is such an amazing display even real?) is possible.
Another was the time when I laid eyes on the Grand Canyon for the first time. Words can not begin to describe the beauty and majesty of the Canyon.
Tonight we will begin the festival of Shavuot. Shavuot is a holiday that celebrates Torah and its centrality in Jewish tradition. We are a people centered around sacred text passed down through the generations. Each generation will receive, interpret and pass on Torah, and this process of reading, studying and interpreting is as much a part of Torah as the original words on the scroll. It is this we note, and it is traditional to mark Shavuot with late night study of Jewish texts and ideas.
During Shavuot we also call to mind the origin story the Torah tells of itself. Once freed from Egyptian slavery and brought across the Sea of Reeds into the wilderness, the Israelites are led by Moses to Mount Sinai. Moses ascends the mountain and meets with God, who reveals to Moses the Torah, the text that is to be at the center of this newly formed community and covenant.
Our ancestors saw God in the mountain. A mountain is indeed awe-inspiring and humbling feature of nature. It is not surprising that our ancestors looked upon the mountain and saw something greater than themselves, a sacred place, a place not where God lives, but a place to where one must go to meet God on important occasions. It is no wonder, then, that the story of Revelation happens on a mountain.
The Grand Canyon too is indeed an awe-inspiring and humbling feature of nature. We can look upon it and see something greater than us, a sacred space. Perhaps if our ancestors had the experience of the canyon, our story might be different.
Ultimately though, wherever we find inspiration and awe and humility can be sacred space. These awesome wonders of Creation (a term which in many ways is simply a means of referring to the natural world) help facilitate these moments. That is why we say a blessing.
Our ancestors saw God in a mountain. I had the experience of seeing God in a canyon. Taken together, it is a good reminder that while we often see God–and Torah–in the heights, in the highs, God and Torah are also in the depths, in the lows.