Lag B’Omer, fire, and faith
With the old Johannesburg General Hospital, Cape Town’s Table Mountain, and the University of Cape Town having suffered devastating fire damage just last week, I would imagine that the custom of lighting bonfires on Lag B’Omer will be somewhat subdued this year.
Perhaps it’s timely to ask where this custom originates. And, in general, how is fire looked upon in Jewish thought? What, is, in fact, the spiritual symbolism of fire?
If we go back to the very beginning of time in the Genesis story, we find that the first human, Adam, discovered fire on the very first Saturday night in history. It was the first time he had experienced darkness and, somehow, he was inspired to rub two flint stones together sparking a flame which enabled him to see in the night. This is the source for our weekly blessing over fire, “boreh meorei haeish”, in the Havdalah prayer recited at the conclusion of Shabbat.
Fire features prominently throughout the Bible and in the Tanach. Just a few episodes that come to mind immediately are Moses’ very first revelation from G-d at the burning bush, and the clouds of glory which miraculously guided and protected the Israelites during their travels in the wilderness which included a pillar of fire. During the great revelation at Sinai where we heard the ten commandments directly from G-d, scripture records that, “The whole of Mount Sinai was smoking because the L-rd had descended upon it in fire.” Indeed, the Torah itself is described as “a fiery faith”.
Tragically, twice in our history, our enemies set fire to Jerusalem and our Holy Temples, causing destruction and the enduring exile from which we have yet to fully recover.
Arguably, the most famous wedding speech one hears under the chupah is the one about the Hebrew words for “man” and “woman”, “ish” and “isha”. Ish (man) contains the Hebrew letter yud while isha (woman) contains the letter hay. Together, yud and hay spell one of the holy names of G-d. Remove those letters, and you are left with only the alef and the shin in each word, which spells aish, or fire.
The sobering message to bride and groom? Leaving G-d out of the marital relationship definitely spells trouble and may well bring a fiery end to the marriage, whereas the presence of Hashem in their home is a recipe for a life of happiness.
Not long after the people sinned with the golden calf, the Jewish people were remorseful but needed to do something meaningful to atone for their terrible mistake. G-d told them to bring a half shekel of silver as their penance.
But Moses was puzzled. How could the giving of a mere coin atone for such a grievous sin as idolatry? Rashi, quoting the Midrash, writes that G-d showed Moses a “coin of fire”. The Lubavitcher Rebbe explained that the concept of the coin of fire means that while a coin alone is certainly an inadequate atonement, if it is given with fire, meaning with passion and profound feelings of contrition and regret, it can indeed bring about the desired atonement. Thus, fire becomes a powerful symbol of a passionate and inspired spiritual experience.
Of course, fire has always been a symbol of warmth, light, illumination, spirituality, and even divine revelation as it pierces the darkness of the material world. But, as we all know only too well, fire can also be a source of horrific chaos and destruction. Fire can illuminate and open our eyes to new and higher realities. It can help us to “see the light”, but it can also wreak havoc and destruction.
Nuclear energy can fire up power plants producing electricity for an entire continent, but if it gets into the wrong hands, it can blow our entire planet to smithereens.
Fire, too, can be a positive tool for building, illuminating, welding, and bringing things together; or, it can be a weapon of mass destruction, G-d forbid. It all depends on the people using it and their intentions, whether noble or evil. When controlled with intelligence and sensitivity, fire can provide energy to fuel a nation. Unchecked, it destroys and leaves utter devastation in its wake.
In the Lag B’Omer story, besides Rabbi Akiva, the other hero of the day is Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the second century sage who passed away on this day. Besides being a famed Talmudist, he is acknowledged as the author of the holy Zohar, the “Bible” of the Kabbalah and the father of Jewish mysticism.
Tradition has it that when he taught Torah it was, quite literally, a fiery experience. And, on that fateful Lag B’Omer day, when his holy soul was leaving this world, his face was so radiant that his students couldn’t gaze at him directly. And his entire house was shining with a fiery light, symbolising the powerful, spiritual light of his holy teachings. For this, as well as other reasons, we light bonfires on Lag B’Omer, especially around his tomb in Meron, the little town in Upper Galilee in Israel.
I will end with a Jewish proverb from the saintly sages of old that tells us: “After a fire, one is blessed with wealth.” So may it be for all who have suffered trauma and loss.
- Rabbi Yossy Goldman is the life rabbi emeritus at Sydenham Shul and the president of the SA Rabbinical Association.
Mother nature’s gifts
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks said, “The name of our parsha seems to embody a paradox. It’s called ‘Chayei Sarah’ [The Life of Sarah], but it begins with the death of Sarah. What’s more, it records the death of Abraham. Why is a parsha about death called life? The answer, it seems, is that death and how we face it is a commentary on life and how we live it.”
Abraham knew that everything that happened to him, even the bad things, were part of the journey which G-d had sent him and Sarah on, and he had the faith to walk through the valley of the shadow of death fearing no evil, knowing that G-d was with him.
I see and feel profound meaning in this paradox. Sarah’s social status – and its impact on the future of her family and people – was so great, it only increased after her passing.
Sarah, our mother, our matriarch, the mother of Klal Yisrael (the Jewish people), was quite the “modern” woman. She led her life with clear vision and purpose. She had the courage to follow her convictions, no matter how progressive they were at the time. She was a role model for women of her era, as well as becoming a role model for the modern woman of the 21st century.
We can’t forget that we live in a world of duality, of light and dark, hot and cold, male and female. Sarah knew that according to well-established laws, neither side of that duality was more important than the other. In fact, they were really different degrees of the same thing – and in truth, light couldn’t exist without darkness, neither could men exist without women – and vice versa.
We often get so caught up in our own lives that we seldom pay attention to the power of mother nature. Let’s take a simple example of one mistakenly cutting oneself while preparing dinner for the family. The wound bleeds. Perhaps we run some water over it, or apply some pressure, and shortly thereafter, we leave it alone. What does mother nature do? She moves according to well-established laws, laws that are firmly in the direction of healing, and the wound begins to heal on its own. It’s only when we interfere with mother nature that things tend to go wrong. Left to her own devices, we are generally in good hands.
We should do all that we can to uplift those around us to see the same light we see, and then allow mother nature (through the womb of time) to do what she does best. Let’s not be consumed by trying to sweep the darkness out of the dark room. Let’s be like Sarah, and turn our attention to the light, reach out, and switch it on. We must know that we have received a gift from our ancestors, and pass those gifts down, l’dor vador (from generation to generation) through the generations of mothers following Sarah.
Our sages teach of the obligation of every Jew to ask, “When will my actions reach those of our illustrious patriarchs and matriarchs?” We see the prototype of kindness at the beginning of this week’s Torah reading, when Abraham and Sarah display remarkable hospitality towards three strangers travelling through the desert. Abraham bows down to each of them, and presents a more elaborate banquet than Bill Gates served this week at his daughter’s wedding – each guest received his own tongue. Why was this necessary? One tongue would have been sufficient. Why does Abraham go to such lengths to make each of the guests feel like a king? What motivated Abraham’s behaviour?
The Midrash describes Abraham’s meeting with Sheim, the son of Noach. Abraham asks Sheim, “What did you and your family do for the year you were in the Ark?” Sheim answers, “We were all involved with the kindness of feeding the animals 24/7”. Abraham realised that the foundation of the new world G-d was starting was kindness – olam chesed yibaneh (the world is built on kindness). Hashem’s training for the people who would build this new world was constant acts of kindness.
Abraham reasoned that if Hashem valued the kindness done to animals in the Ark, how much more so would he value it when the kindness was done to human beings who are created betzelem elokim (with a spark of the divine). Avraham clearly saw the fingerprints of the creator in the world. He saw the spark of Hashem in himself, and he was then able to see the spark of Hashem in others. Only those who recognise their own G-dly soul will recognise it in the human beings around them. Avraham and Sarah’s kindness wasn’t simply to help those less fortunate than themselves, they saw the divine spark in every human being, and they treated their guests like royalty, impressing upon them their own self-worth and uniqueness. Their kindness was designed to uplift people, to raise them up to recognise their inner greatness.
This is different to how most of us see others. We usually have zero tolerance for those who are slightly different to us in any way. We need to follow the example of our patriarchs and matriarchs in doing true acts of kindness by seeing G-d’s presence in the world, identifying the divine spark in ourselves, and recognising it in others.
In the brave steps of Abraham
In this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, we read about the first Jew, Avraham, who resisted the tide of paganism, idolatry, and immorality. Society had moved away from monotheism and Avraham’s beliefs were ridiculed. However, Avraham stayed the course and in spite of great personal risk and at the cost of ostracism from his family, he spread the belief in one G-d.
The portion opens with G-d giving Avraham a direct command to travel out of his homeland and away from his family in order to spread his newfound message. G-d’s command to Avraham in this verse can additionally be seen as a command to us to leave the comfort of our insular lives and venture out to the world at large to transform it into a G-dly place.
While we may be satisfied by staying within the safe confines of the Judaism that we have grown up with, it’s no recipe for growth. G-d therefore tells us that if we enter the real world, our full inner potential will be realised, and our true, best selves will come to the fore.
Fighting the prevailing attitudes of the day has never been easy, but as Jews, we can be reassured that our forefathers have travelled this path before us. The Midrash teaches that “the actions of the fathers are a signpost for the children”. Another translation of the word siman or “signpost” is “empowerment”, and the Midrash teaches us that by risking their lives to spread the belief in one G-d, our forefathers made it easier for us to follow their example.
At this time of year, when we have hopefully been inspired by a month of festivals and are thinking about moving forward in our Judaism, we can be confident that we are following the advice of tried and tested authorities all the way back to Avraham.
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