The Potential of Fire
May we use our flames to bring healing and warmth, not death and desolation
By Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz
Kol HaOt Co-founder
This year, I have been thinking a lot about fires. Blazes in our world that are out of control. And I am sure that for many of you that same image has been a trope over the year that has come and gone. As I reflected and wrestled with this image, a midrash from Bereshit Rabbah 39a, came to mind.
This rabbinic exegesis expands on that liminal moment in Abraham’s life when he is commanded, Lekh Lekha – “get up and go, from your land, your birthplace, your father’s home, to the land that I will show you.” The perennial question concerning the rabbis of course was way was Abraham chosen? What did Abraham do, proactively, to catch God’s attention?
One answer is offered by Rabbi Yitzhak: It is comparable to one who wandered from place to place and saw “birah ahat doleket” (literally he saw a city aflame; you will understand in a moment why my translation of choice is the original Hebrew).
משל לאחד שהיה עובר ממקום למקום וראה בירה אחת דולקת
And so he said to himself, “could it be that this city does not have a leader behind it?!?” At that moment, the owner of the city peeked out and said to him, “I am the ruler of this city.”
?אמר תאמר שהבירה זו בלא מנהיג
הציץ עליו בעל הבירה אמר לו: אני הוא בעל הבירה
Such was the case with Abraham our ancestor. He looked around this world and said, “Could it be that there is no leader?!?” At that moment, God peered out from the Heavens and said, “I am the Ruler of the Universe”
כך לפי שהיה אבינו אברהם אומר תאמר שהעולם הזה בלא מנהיג? הציץ עליו הקב"ה
The midrash is brilliant in its ambiguity. On the one hand, birah ahat doleket could mean an illuminated city, or a city of great beauty; that is to say, Abraham recognized God’s Presence through the beauty and grandeur of the world. On the other hand, birah ahat doleket could also mean that it was a city burning, in turmoil; a world of flames. The power of this multivalent reading is that it offers us two ways of coming close to God: in beauty or in turmoil.
Our world today is in turmoil, engulfed in flames. To quote a modern rebbe known as the RAMBAJ (Rabbeinu Moreinu Billy Joel):
“Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnnie Ray, South Pacific, Walter Winchell, Joe DiMaggio,
Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Studebaker, television, North Korea, South Korea, Marilyn Monroe.”
And of course the famous refrain of this song, “We didn't start the fire, It was always burning since the world's been turning, We didn't start the fire, No we didn't light it but we tried to fight it.”
Perhaps we didn’t start the fires that are burning; but I take issue with Billy Joel’s line: “no we didn’t light it but we tried to fight it.” Today, sitting in this sacred space during the High Holiday season, I want to challenge us to become fighters. Not to simply try to fight it but to succeed in fighting it. The inferno surrounding us must be fought.
What is the greatness of Abraham? He saw a world burning and realized that there must be a righteous and just leader behind the flames. The Genesis narrative tells us he lived in a time of migration, childlessness, insecurity, familial disharmony, skirmishes and wars, the abduction of his nephew, the expulsion of one son, and the near sacrifice of another, yet he consistently envisions other possibilities.
Given the ambiguous promise of blessing, Abraham leaves all that is familiar, in order to forge a new path. Given the choice of black or white, Abraham chooses a path of compromise as he parts from his nephew Lot and gives his nephew the first choice of real estate in the Land of Israel. Given what must have been feelings of hurt and resentment, he does not turn his back on Lot when he is taken captive, but redeems him. When faced with the possibility of wiping out the innocent with the guilty in Sodom and Gemora, Abraham confronts God and urges God to act in a way that will reflect Divine morality and ethics. “Hashofet kol ha’aretz lo ya’aseh mishpat?” Could it be that the righteous judge of the world doesn’t act in a just way?
Today, in this moment, we are called upon to be covenantal partners in the model of Abraham. Listen to these timeless words from a modern day Abraham: “The new situation in the world has plunged every one of us into unknown regions of responsibility. Unprepared, perplexed, misguided, the world is a spiritual no-man’s land. Men all over the world are waiting for a way out of the distress, for a new certainty for the meaning of being human. Will help come from those who seek to keep alive the words of the prophets? This is, indeed, a grave hour for those who are committed to honor the name of God.” Though these words could have been penned today, they were written by Abraham Joshua Heschel in 1969. Heschel’s words ring true today.
So imagine Billy Joel writing more verses for his song:
Parkland shooting, Charlottesville, Puerto Rico devastation,
world refugee migration,
Trump and Russian interference, Mueller and Melania’s parents,
Rohinga genocide, California blazes; chaos from the Middle Ages; Corbyn’s antisemitism; Rabbi Dubi Hayun is imprisoned
The list is potentially endless and paralyzing. And such misery has the ability to eclipse God... and to eclipse God’s Presence. It is not enough to grumble about the state of affairs in the world today and then to say that “we tried to fight it.” In Pirkei Avot we are taught, b’makom she’ain ish, hishtadel lihiyot ish, “in a place where there is no mensch, stand up and be a mensch."
Find the Abraham inside of you and choose one of the fires: will you work to smother the flames of gun violence? Or will you take on the flames of hatred? Will it be reminding our fellow Jews and the world over that we were repeatedly told, “do not oppress a stranger in your midst, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt”? Will it be finding your voice for the cause of religious pluralism in Israel? Or will it be helping to extinguish the flames of the wildfires plaguing California?
This hour in human history calls for faith, sensitivity, partnership and proactivity. The Sfat Emet teaches that what made Abraham special was not any heroic ability. It was about hearing the call of Lekh Lekha. Get up and go to yourself. Realize yourself, your true self. For the voice, the Sfat Emet writes, calls out to each and every one of us, every moment of every day. But it is only a select few that are attuned to hearing the voice, and proactively embracing the journey.
בודאי זה השבח בעצמו שהי' מוכן לקבל המאמר
A modern day prophet, Theodor Herzl, lived in a Jewish world of flames: the Dreyfus trial, the radical insecurity and persecution of the Jewish people. Yet he articulated a vision. In 1902, two years before his death, he wrote a fiction work entitled Altneuland. In his chapter on Jerusalem, here’s Herzl’s dream of a future Jerusalem:
"Outside the walls, the picture was altogether different. Modern sections intersected by electric street railways; wide, tree bordered streets; homes, gardens, boulevards, parks; schools, hospitals, government buildings, pleasure resorts... The spell of the Sabbath was over the Holy City, now freed from filth, noise and vile odors that had so often revolted devout pilgrims of all creeds... All was different now. The lanes and streets were beautifully paved and cared for... Muslim, Jewish and Christian welfare institutions, hospitals, clinics stood side by side... Jerusalem was now a home for all the best strivings of the human spirit: for faith, love and knowledge.” Im tirtzu ayn zo agodah . . . if you will it, it is no dream.
True, Billy, we didn’t start the fire, but to say we tried to fight it is not enough. During these Ten Days of Repentance, choose your fire in this world . . .what is your birah doleket? Where and what is your city in flames? Take note of your cause, articulate an alternative vision, a hopeful vision and fight for it!
May we learn construction, not destruction; may we strive toward unity, not uniformity; may we use our flames to bring healing and warmth, not death and desolation. In doing so, it will make each and every one of us loyal and worthy messengers of the essence of the High Holiday season. G'mar Hatimah Tovah!