The images which leave an impression on us aren’t always the ones we expect. A black field, with an uneven yellow-orange halo surrounding a fuzzy black centre doesn’t sound like a particularly moving visual stimulus. Yet, the image (below), which was released yesterday, is a huge step forward for our understanding of the natural world in which we live.
When Katie Bouman was a graduate PhD student at MIT, she started coming up with an algorithm which would use radio telescope arrays scattered around the Earth (8 of them) to record and synthesize the data they gathered into the world’s first picture of a black hole. Three years later, with the help of over two hundred scientists, telescopes from Antartica to Chile, and over one thousand hard drives of data– she watched as her computer loaded all the data, calculated the algorithm, and as a result, we have this slightly-fuzzy image of an orange ring.
What matters of course, is what’s within that ring, and what it demonstrates in terms of current theories about the universe. What is unquestionably present in this unassuming image is awe. This little orange ring represents the first ever picture of one of the most mysterious objects in the universe, with this particular black hole being 55 million light years away and having a mass of approximately 6.5 billion times that of our sun!
This sense of awe at nature is one that’s really important for us to cultivate and consider as spiritual people. The root of most religious feeling is awe– wonder at the scale of the cosmos, the beauty of nature, the complexity of the human body, etc. Most people, no matter what their theology, can connect with the simple fascination at how amazing the world is. That sense is absolutely elemental to any spiritual practice as it grounds our sense of self and other in a fundamental way.
One small way in which we tap into that primordial awe in Judaism is through a special berakhah (blessing) which can only be said once a year. Birkat haIlanot (Blessing of the Trees) is the annual opportunity to stop and notice the wonder of trees blooming, blossoming, and giving birth to new life.
Specifically, whenever you notice fruit growing on a tree for the first time, you should stop and say this yearly blessing. Typically it’s assumed that the trees flower and bloom between the beginning of Nisan (last Shabbat) and Pesach (next Shabbat)– which means we’re in primetime fruit-tree-blessing season right now. The blessing is below, and I’d encourage you to keep an eye out for your own annual opportunity to share a bit of awe.
Whether its a black hole or a black plum– the beauty and majesty of nature is fundamental to our spiritual life and deserving of a moment in which we stop, admire, and be amazed.
Birkat haIlanot (Blessing of the Trees)
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֶלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם,
שֶׁלֹא חִסַּר בָּעוֹלָמוֹ כְּלוּם,
וּבָרָא בוֹ בְּרִיּוֹת טוֹבוֹת וְאִילָנוֹת טוֹבִים,
לְהַנּוֹת בָּהֶם בְּנֵי אָדָם׃
Barukh attah adonai elohénu melekh ha’olam
shelo ẖissar ba’olamo k’lum
uvara vo b’riyyot tovot v’ilanot tovim
l’hannot bahem b’né adam
Blessed are You, Adonai, our God, Universal Ruler,
who has not left out of the universe a single thing–
and who has made within it all the good creatures and the good trees,
that human beings may enjoy them and benefit from them.