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Lag B’Omer, fire, and faith

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Religion

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.

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Religion

A journey to authenticity

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As South African Jews, we appreciate what it means to be Jewish. We appreciate how Judaism enriches our homes and families, how it connects us to community, how it gives our lives direction, meaning, and purpose. We appreciate, also, how Judaism helps us to become better people – compassionate, giving, loving, moral people. And how it brings us close to our Creator, to those around us, and to our own inner self. Judaism roots us in a rich spiritual, ethical, and historical tradition, and connects us to Jews around the world and our beloved Israel.

Judaism enriches our lives in so many ways. But as Shavuot approaches, we are reminded that being Jewish is connected to certain foundational facts and truths of actual events that happened.

On Shavuot, we celebrate the anniversary of the birth of the Jewish people – the story of who we are, where we come from, and most importantly, why we exist. This year, we mark exactly 3 333 years since G-d gave us the Torah on Mount Sinai.

Shavuot makes a factual claim about the origins of the Jewish people in the same way that Pesach does. At the Pesach seder, we trace the origins of our people from slavery to miraculous redemption through G-d Himself intervening in human history. And on Shavuot, we remind ourselves how three million Jews standing at the foot of a mountain heard G-d speak and begin the process of revealing His Torah to us and with it our purpose in life.

Take a moment to think about this. It’s a radical claim. To be a Jew isn’t just to be a member of a particular culture with a shared history. It’s to be part of an eternal covenant with G-d, to be the bearers of a Divine mission in the world. This is the essence of Jewish identity and Jewish destiny. This is who we are, where we come from, why we exist.

And so, everything depends on the historical claims we make on Pesach and Shavuot. This is a time to reflect not just on the meaning and the implications of the story of the origin of the Jewish people, but on its authenticity.

Earlier this week, I had a fascinating conversation with Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen. A graduate of the University of California Los Angeles and Harvard, he is a recognised expert on comparative religion. The conversation was about exactly this subject – the authenticity of the origin story of the Jewish people, and in particular of the Divine revelation at Sinai. Kelemen compared it to the origin story and historical claims of other religions and nations, and put forward a compelling, rational-scientific argument for the veracity of the Jewish story.

What moved me in our conversation was his personal life story. He grew up in a traditional family but challenged his parents on beliefs that they took for granted. He began his own journey to search for truth through his academic studies and other sources. In the end, he came to a deep realisation of the truths of Judaism, of G-d’s existence, and the authenticity of the Torah. He wrote books – Permission to Believe and Permission to Receive – to share his findings with others. In our conversation, he told me how he found faith and belief in Judaism through rational analysis of the facts. He reminded me that we are all on individual journeys of deepening our faith. This may be why the festival is called Shavuot, which literally means week, referring to the weeks leading up to Sinai, reminding us that getting to the mountain of truth is a process, an individual journey of faith and connection.

Let this year’s Shavuot be a catalysing moment for us individually and collectively as we embark on this journey of faith together.

I’d love to know about your journey. Reach out to me, and I’ll share source material that has been valuable to me on my journey. There is so much that has been written and spoken that can guide and illuminate our paths to the foundational truths of our people.

Chag sameach!

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Religion

Closer to G-d in the desert

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It’s no coincidence that Shavuot takes place just after we read the portion of Torah called Bamidbar (In the desert). It’s the beginning of the book of that name, a book that’s filled with the difficult coming-of-age of the Jewish people. But it’s also the place that the Jews went to from Egypt. What’s this desert experience, then?

Desert is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as “A waterless, desolate area of land with little or no vegetation, typically one covered with sand.”

I’ve been in many a desert, and I must beg to differ with the OED (with all due respect to that august work) and its adjective of “desolate”, which has a distinctly negative connotation. For naturalists, the desert has a different definition. Deserts cover about one-fifth of the earth’s surface, they usually get at most 50cm (20 inches) of rainfall a year, and the organisms that live in them are adapted to this extremely dry climate. (Courtesy National Geographic).

So, the desert, while not being easy to live in, is in fact a place of plants and animals that have overcome its difficulties, not just to survive but thrive.

How does Jewish thought see the desert? The midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 1:7) questions the phrase “bemidbar Sinai – in the Sinai Desert” – “And G-d spoke to Moses in the Sinai Desert”. (Numbers 1:1). Why the Sinai Desert? From here, the sages taught that the Torah was given through three things: fire, water, and wilderness. How do we know it was given through desert? As it says above, “And G-d spoke to Moses in the Sinai Desert”. And why was the Torah given through these three things? Just as (fire, water, and wilderness) are free to all the inhabitants of the world, so too are the words of Torah free to them. Another explanation: “And G-d spoke to Moses in the Sinai Desert” is that anyone who doesn’t make themselves ownerless like the wilderness cannot acquire the wisdom and the Torah. Therefore, it says, “the Sinai Desert”.

The idea of desert, then, is vital to the idea of Torah. In ancient times, no-one owned the desert – it was free to all who wished to walk it. Just so, the Torah belongs to all who seek its wisdom. Further, no-one can claim to own the true meaning of the Torah, saying “I, and only I, know what the Torah is saying”. After all, as the Talmud in a number of places states, “These and these are the words of the living G-d.”

Moreover, there is a psychological element to the statement, “Anyone who doesn’t make themselves ownerless (hefker)…” True learning of the Torah requires one to rid oneself of ego, to remove all sense of one’s own intellectual capabilities, pride, or arrogance. It’s so easy to feel that one has learnt “a lot” of Torah, spending time in a yeshiva or school to do so. But the Torah is vast, its horizon a mirage, which makes it difficult to navigate.

Just like a desert.

In the middle of the Kalahari Desert, I was struck by the vastness of physical space as well as the enormity of the silence. Indeed, the silence was so loud, I felt I could hear the earth spinning on its axis. I was humbled, struck by my smallness in the midst of the power of the desert. This is the mindset that the midrash demands of the students of Torah.

Finally, it’s in the desert that one can talk to G-d. Life is cleared of all extraneous detail, whittled down to its essentials. It’s only earth, and few creatures and plants. All baggage is cleared, and it’s just you, the stillness of the rocks, the wind sifting the grains of sand – and G-d, waiting to speak to you in the silence.

  • Ilana Stein is head of education of the Academy of Jewish Thought and Learning, where she also lectures on Tanach and Jewish environmental ethics.

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Religion

Ten Commandments – season 3 333 – at a synagogue near you

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We love round numbers. The celebration of decades, half centuries, and centuries always takes on special significance. Next week, on Shavuot, we will celebrate, for the 3 333rd time, the anniversary of the gift of the Torah on Mount Sinai. The covenant took place in the year 1948 from creation, (1 313 BCE), hence 33 centuries and 33 years have now elapsed. Besides being an aesthetically pleasing number with a great ring, is there any significance to the number 3 333?

It turns out that the number 33 is very closely connected to the essence of the Sinai covenant. Allow me to take you on a journey into some simple numerology. In Psalms 119, King David begs Hashem to “uncover my eyes so that I can behold wonders in your Torah”. The Hebrew for uncover is gal which is spelt gimmel-lamed. According to the Gimatryia code, which ascribes a numerical value to each of the letters of our alphabet, a gimmel is worth 3 and a lamed 30. That adds up to 33!

On the very first Shavuot, back in the year 1948, the assembled nation at the foot of the mountain had their eyes opened to the true reality of this world, a place where G-dliness permeates and fills all space. Being a physical environment, the realm that we inhabit conceals, by its very nature, its true essence. But there at Sinai, we were shown a glimpse of the hidden divine dimension of this world.

There, we were given the Torah: a set of detailed instructions enabling us to crack the veneer of suppression, to uncover for ourselves the deeper spiritual dimensions of this world. The mitzvot, 613 divine instructions (248 obligations and 365 prohibitions) form the code that unlock that reality. Studying this Book of the Law helps us to delve into the G-dliness that’s all around us. Following the instructions therein, by all of us across many generations, will reveal the true reality that comprises this world.

Each generation builds on the achievements of the former. As we move down the course of history, closer and closer to an era when the knowledge of G-d will finally fill the world, we are delving deeper and deeper into loftier and more sublime levels of Torah. The initial unearthing took place at Mount Sinai, one week into our current month of Sivan. Another watershed event in this process was the revelation of the Kabbalah, the inner dimension of Torah, by the great Talmudic scholar, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. This took place on his final day on this earth. The anniversary of his death, and of the huge exposure of Torah, is the 18th of Iyar, corresponding to the 33rd day of the Omer – a day commonly referred to as Lag B’Omer (Lag is spelt gimmel-lamed = 33)!

King David prayed for Hashem to open his eyes and reveal to him the wonders that are found in Torah. This year’s Shavuot comes to us after a year and a half of what appears to us to be deep concealment, and weeks after a day of Lag B’Omer in which celebration turned into tragedy. As we prepare to celebrate the gift of this Torah for the 3 333rd time, we beg Hashem to open our eyes and show us the divine within this physical world so that all will finally be understood.

On Monday morning, at a synagogue near you, come hear the ten commandments read from the Torah. May season 3 333 turn out to be the final one, ushering in the era of moshiach that Jews have prayed and hoped for these 33 centuries and 33 years!

Chag sameach

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