‘From the crooked timber of humanity,” said Immanuel Kant, “nothing straight can be made.” This famous shot of pessimism from one of history’s pre-eminent philosophers makes an interesting contrast with the rabbinic comment in the Talmud: “Thunder was created only to straighten the crookedness in a human heart” (Berakhot 59a).
The Rabbis were as cognizant as Kant of all the wickedness people do. But they believed that being shocked into reflecting on God’s majesty and the wonder of the natural world, could serve as a corrective. Just as when we beat our breasts during the confessional, hearts can be roused to goodness.
In studying human beings, it is easy and almost inevitable to strike a somber, cynical note from time to time. There is an enormous amount of cruelty in our history and in our world. To see that without the corresponding vision of kindness is to miss something crucial: In the sounds of suffering and want, in the aspiration of transcendence and healing, there is the sound of thunder, and it has remarkable softening and straightening effects on the human heart.
Rabbi David Wolpe is spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter: @RabbiWolpe. His latest book is “David: The Divided Heart” (Yale University Press). His column resumes this week after a six-month hiatus.