Fire plays a central role in the first few parshiyot (Torah portions) of Sefer Vayikra (the Book of Leviticus). We continue to learn of the different sacrifices burnt on the altar as offerings to God. Daily sacrifices, thanksgiving sacrifices, guilt and sin offerings. Each one was transformed from something ordinary into something sacred through the ritual act. One central component to the sacrifices was the fire, which had to be continually stoked in order for it to do its work.
Greg Metzger wrote eloquently last week about our responsibility to keep the fire burning. Fire is likened to our passion to fight for the values and ideals that are most precious to us. When we think of passion, what comes to mind? Something cold or something hot? Fire can inflame our passions, hopefully for the good, but not always.
This week’s Torah portion, Shmini, looks at the dangerous side of fire. “Now Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s sons, each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Eternal One alien fire (eish zarah), which the Eternal One had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from the Eternal One and consumed them.” (Leviticus 10:1-2).
This brief episode and Aaron’s subsequent response are among the most chilling and disturbing in the Torah. Just one misstep can extinguish life. Here we are at this sacred moment of consecration as Navav and Avihu prepare to assume an important role in the leadership of the priestly cult. Yet in an instant they are consumed (literally eaten—tokhal) by a fire that emanated from God.
The brevity and unexpected nature of this incident led our sages to imagine what Nadav and Avihu had done that was such an egregious offence to God. Many believe that they were too ambitious or arrogant, wanting to cast away their father and uncle, Aaron and Moses, so that they could become the next leaders, thinking they’d do a better job Many of the commentaries are quite critical of Nadav and Avihu, who deviated from God’s specific instructions. Some, however, are more sympathetic. Nadav and Avihu knew the right way to conduct themselves. However, they also wanted to be innovative, or perhaps they got so wrapped up in the awesomeness of that moment, that they lost their concentration and inadvertently moved off the script. We do not know the exact reasons for God’s wrath, however, we certainly know the result; Aaron’s two sons, laying dead in the sanctuary, their father, Aaron, stunned into silence.
Fire can both save lives and destroy lives. The Israelites were led at night by a Pillar of Fire that not only lighted up their path but also kept them warm. Fire is also a central element of the sacrifices. Those of us who enjoy camping know just how beautiful and captivating a campfire can be, whether it is keeping us warm on a cool night, or helping us to cook our food. Nevertheless, we in Southern California know all too well that just one errant spark can ignite a fire that can consume hundreds of thousands of acres of forest, destroying homes and lives.
Fire has been a tool of death and warfare in Darfur and in the Congo. The images we have all seen of completely burnt villages, charred remnants of what had been a thriving and vibrant community reduced to ashes are seared into our consciousness. Those fires were set by men who harbored the most evil impulses known to humankind. Their passions were enflamed by hatred and their flames used to inflict the greatest amount of intimidation, death, and destruction upon a helpless people. If only we could combat that destructive fire with life sustaining fire.
In two weeks of Torah portions we see fire being used in diametrically opposed ways; the correct use of fire, for sanctification, by burning the sacrifice on the altar (in last week’s portion) and the perverse use of fire, an eish zarah, alien fire that violated and desecrated the sacred boundary that God had established in the sanctuary.
How will we use our fire? Will we use it to ignite our passion to fight for justice and righteousness? Will we use it to light up the sacred work we are continually inspired to perform? Can our fire of justice be used to consume fires of hatred? This is our task, as we continue to advocate and educate, stoking the glowing embers of so many in our community to erupt into a fiery commitment to working to consume the flames of violence, and genocide that continue to burn in Darfur, the Congo and throughout the world.
I look forward to walking with many other torches of justice in Orange County in a little over one week.
Rabbi Charles K. Briskin serves Temple Beth El in San Pedro, CA, which is a proud synagogue partner of Jewish World Watch