Image: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Eruption of Kilauea Volcano. 11/14/59. Public Domain, USGS photo.
My friends know that I have a special place in my heart for the Big Island of Hawaii. I spend most of my vacation time there. It is hard for me to articulate the reasons I love that place so much. Some of it is the aloha that I feel from nearly every local person I encounter. Some is the sight of the ohia lehua flowering shrubs that grow in the most barren-looking volcanic stone. Some is the song of the ‘apapane, a scarlet songbird that nests in the ohia. Some of it is the taste of the delicate flesh of fresh ono, a delicious fish.
All those are a part of my fascination. And yet the centerpiece that brings them all together, that draws me back and back to that island, is the terrible vision at the heart of it: the volcanoes.
Hawaiian myth talks about Madame Pele, she who “devours the land.” So do the locals today, even those who will tell you that they “aren’t religious.” The reason they speak of Pele the way they do is that seeing a live volcano is a holy experience. When I look into the crater of the volcano, when I see the glow of lava and smell the stink of volcanic gases, I feel yirat haShem, the fear of God. I feel wonder and awe and terror at the might of Creation and the Creator.
Certainly it is possible to look at the volcano with a scientific eye, to analyze the composition of the lava and the gases in the air. But even the most cold-eyed volcanologist will tell you that a volcanic eruption is powerful beyond imagining and profoundly dangerous. They will also tell you that they cannot control the volcano: once it is erupting, they can observe it, but when the lava flows, the only rational response to it is to get out of the way. Seeing an eruption takes us to the edge of life and death, to the primal forces that shape our world, and for many of us, it is a religious experience.
Volcanologists will tell you that the volcano (in this case, Kilauea) is death and life in one huge messy package. When we see the flow of lava, we are watching the process of creation, new land emerging from the earth, destroying everything it touches, and then cooling to begin the long, slow process that will in millennia become arable land. After the lava cools, tiny ohia seeds will ride the wind over the lava field and fall into the cracks where moisture collects. They are not bothered by the sulfur dioxide air; they put out their tiny roots and begin the work of transforming the lava rock into fertile soil. Ohia is a miracle. The volcano is a miracle: a giant, terrifying miracle.
There is a blessing for the sight of a volcanic eruption:
Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haOlam, sheh-ko-KHO ug-vu-rah-TOH mah-LAY oh-LAHM.
Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of All-that-is, whose strength and power fill the world.
This blessing is only for the times when we witness in person a powerful display such as a volcanic eruption, a horrific storm, or an earthquake. There are other blessings, softer blessings, for the gentler wonders of nature, but this is the blessing for natural events so powerful they can kill us. This blessing is for those moments when nature forces us to acknowledge our fragility in this world.
I am a Jew. I worship only the one God, the God of Israel, but I recognize God’s creation when I see it. The Hawaiians give this experience of God the name Pele. I whisper the blessing, and tremble in awe at the Holy One.
*At this writing, almost 2,000 people have been displaced and many have lost their homes. Here is an article about ways we can help those suffering during this eruption of Kilauea.