The Spirituality of Volcanoes

This posting was originally posed on the Rabbis Without Borders blog on My Jewish Learning. You can read the original here.

While perhaps we are more familiar with the destructive nature of earthquakes and hurricanes and tornados, since they occur more frequently and make the national news more often, I have come to understand the risks and power of volcanoes.

We don’t generally think of volcanoes here in the US, but many of the major peaks in the Western United States (including Alaska and Hawaii) are volcanoes, the most famous of which is Mount Saint Helens in Washington State which erupted in 1980, killing 57 people and doing tremendous damage. Mount Rainier, a peak that has an impressive place in the skyline of where I live, is a volcano that last erupted 1,000 years ago which the United States Geological Survey Volcano Hazards Program rates as having a “very high” threat potential.

And now Kilauea volcano in Hawaii is erupting, spewing toxic gas into the air and creating lava flows that have entered residential neighborhoods and destroyed homes.

I think about volcanoes as we draw closer in the Jewish calendar to the holiday of Shavuot, the once-agriculturally-based festival whose primary association now is with the biblical story of the revelation at Sinai. The Torah relates how after the Israelites left Egyptian slavery, the story we marked on Passover a few weeks ago, they made their way to Mount Sinai where they received the Torah from God. The Torah formed the basis for the covenant between the people and God, and would serve as the foundation of the new society created by this newly freed people, a foundation that has been passed down to us. This is what we mark on Shavuot, through prayer and dedication to study.

The revelation at Sinai is not a quiet affair, as we read in the book of Exodus, “Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for God had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently.” (Exodus 19:18)

Sounds like a volcano to me.

The point is not to explain away biblical stories by pointing to possible natural reasons behind the descriptions. The point is that the description of a divine revelation complete with smoke, fire, and quakes has a parallel in nature that can inform our understanding of the experience of the event.

What I find remarkable and interesting about volcanoes is that the forces that cause them to erupt are both visible and hidden. Visible in that a volcano is a mountain—it stands out, it is a known location, one could mark it on a map. And at the same time, the forces that cause it to erupt lay beneath the surface. A known volcano can be dormant for centuries, until it erupts. Or, in other words, a volcano is just a mountain, until it is not.

Much like Mount Sinai in the story. It was just a mountain, until it erupted with the divine presence, until it took on the significance of being the place that God and humanity met to form a new bond and deepen their relationship. It wasn’t even known as the tallest of mountains—an ancient midrash (commentary) relates how other, taller and larger, mountains made the case to God to be the site of revelation. But, as the commentary concludes, Sinai was chosen specifically because it wasn’t the tallest, serving as a symbol of modesty and humility.

We model that humility by seeing anything—a modest mountain, an unassuming person—as a potential source for divine power. The external tells us one thing, but the internal may tell us another. Our sources of inspiration, of challenge, of growth may come from anywhere, we just need to be prepared to receive it.

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