The Torah of Fire

Torah is sometimes likened to fire. It is the Aish HaTorah, the fire of Torah that warms–and burns–as we draw near to God’s message for us. If we attempt to know more than is possible, its fierce radiance forces us to withdraw. As my friend, Rabbi Nahum Ward-Lev says, “Torah is not all milk and cookies.”

Since we believe that God is revealed in everything, fire itself is a great teacher. The hearth is associated with home and community. Building a fire teaches us about building a relationship, a home, and a community. Here’s what I’ ve learned about community from this past winter’s fires in my wood stove.

First, what will contain the fire? A cozy wood stove, an ornamental fireplace, a simple pit? What boundary contains our community, defines it, and keeps it safe? Next, a fire needs fuel, oxygen, and heat. What is the fuel that sustains our community? What is the oxygen, the breath of ideas, visions, and dreams? And what is the heat, the passion? And who or what is the spark, the catalyst to get things going? The fire not only needs these things, it needs them in a right order.

We start with a small pile of something quick to burn. What catches fire most easily with our community? Garbage, like old newspapers, is always good way to start a fire, so maybe we can begin to strengthen community around our garbage: our old issues and our unhealed wounds. A fire doesn’t need too much of this to get it going; pain can spark community into being, but to be sustained we need to add kindling, thin at first and then thicker. The big, thick pieces, the grand visions, can’t be added until the fire is going hot and strong. When we put them on too soon, and we smother the fire. (I have smothered more fires because of this character defect than I care to remember).

What size log is right for the fire at this moment? Who among us likes to bring lots of kindling, the type that creates a brilliant flame for a brief time, and then dies down? The little twigs, the everyday details, often lay groundwork for the big-limbed oak logs. Too many twigs smother a fire, too. There are times when I’m impatient and drop a handful of kindling only to create a smoking mess.

A fire needs tending. How do we feed our fire? How do we tend our community? Every phone call, every greeting at the oneg, is part of our way of feeding the fire. Timing is everything in fires and community! The same log that may keep the fire burning when the flames are hot may kill it if we wait too long to put it on. Returning the call, apologizing, answering an e-mail–all these small acts of service–are best done at the right time.

Sometimes we need a high, hot blaze for a bonfire or quick heat, but if we want to cook, we have to use the embers. How do we find courage and creativity in the ember moments, when energy seems low and the issue is sustaining and not blazing?

Working together is always fragile and delicate, and we need to look at how we douse the fire. Careless communication is the best way to put out the fire. Maybe we have a service that warms all of us and then on the way home we complain loudly about the rabbi or cantor mispronouncing someone’s name, singing a new melody, or a congregant who talks during the sermon. We often talk only with those who agree with us and don’t challenge ourselves to talk with those who don’t see things the same way as we do. We don’t give loving feedback, we don’t accept feedback, and we neglect to say a word of affection, praise, or support that might carry someone through a difficult time.

E-mail makes this problem worse. Its ease encourages us to be hasty and casual in response. The worst thing is when we’re able to reach lots of people with grievances and we know that the more people involved, the less likely the problem is to be solved. Let’s talk only to the people who really need to hear what’s going on. As we leave our literal hearths to sit in the delicious warmth of the spring sun, we can meditate on how we communicate as a community and honor our expressions with each other as profound spiritual practice. May we blow on the embers of trust and hope between us to build a community of light, heat, and illumination.