By Rabbi Roni Tabick
In Britain, we are no strangers to bad weather. Sometimes it’s all we talk about. But we may wonder why, when the Torah is given, the weather had to be so bad?
We read in Exodus 19:
16] On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder and lightning, and a dense cloud over the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn. Everyone in the camp trembled… 18] Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because God descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently. 19] The blare of the horn grew louder and louder. As Moses spoke, God answered him with thunder.
This isn’t just a storm. Thunder and lightning rage over the mountain, which is hidden by thick smoke. The earth itself begins to shake, as the sound of the shofar gets louder and louder. It is out of that cacophony of sound and vision, of earthquake, smoke and fire, that God speaks to Moses. No wonder that in Exodus 20:15 the people turn to Moses and say, “You speak to us, and we will listen, but don’t let God speak to us again or we’ll die”.
Why is this the appropriate setting for the giving of the Torah? What does the Torah have to do with storms and earthquakes?
Scholars have long noted the connection between how the God of the Bible is often portrayed and the portrayal of the storm god Baal in Canaanite sources. Ancient texts from the Canaanite city of Ugarit describe Baal:
Lo, also it is the time of his rain. / Baal sets the season, / And gives forth his voice from the clouds. / He flashes lightning to the earth.
While our God is portrayed through many different sets of images, prominent among them are images of God riding the clouds, appearing in fire, sending the rain, and speaking through thunder. You can see this, for example, in the second paragraph of the Shema, and in Psalm 29, which we read every Friday night. In both, God is often described in terms that are borrowed from ancient storm gods.
It’s this image of God as a storm god that is so important to the moment of giving the Torah, because there are two sides to every storm god. Think of Thor, the Norse god of thunder. Thor is chiefly remembered (thanks perhaps to many Marvel movies) as a warrior god, who fought against frost giants and monsters – but Thor was the most popular Norse deity because of his association with the home and fertility. Lightning and thunder may be strong and violent, but they also bring the life-giving rains.
So, too, with the giving of the Torah. God appears in the violent aspects of storm and earthquake to remind us of God’s power and dominance over the earth. But that very same set of images evokes the rain, with its life-giving water. The very word Torah shares a root with yoreh, the early rain that falls in autumn.
The Torah contains both carrots and sticks – punishments for wrong-doing, but the promise of reward for choosing the right path. And both are contained in the power of the storm.
Rabbi Roni Tabick is the rabbi of New Stoke Newington Shul, and assistant rabbi of New North London Synagogue.