Some might think I’ve been spending too much time in The Fiery Furnace. (That’s the title of the original musical we are producing this spring starring our very own cast of RS students, based on a story from the Book of Daniel.) But everywhere I look this week, I see fire.
In Parashat Tzav, only a couple of parshiot into the book of Leviticus, fire is mentioned a lot. The description of each of the sacrifices brought to the priest describes the fire’s role in the process. It’s the fire that creates the burnt offering, that burns the meal offering, that consumes entirely the sin offering. The parsha begins with a discussion of the how the priest should dress himself and how he should keep the altar, before the long discussion of the different offerings commences. Eish tamid tukad al hamizbeach, lo tichbeh. The fire shall be burning always upon the altar; it shall never go out. (Levit. 6:6)
Fire is dangerous. Fire is powerful. Fire is beautiful. But fire is literally not tangible. You know fire, you feel it, you see it, you perhaps understand it or can even explain it, but you cannot hold it. Fire exists to transform.
Fire is the very last element named in Torah. In Deuteronomy 33:2, in Moses’ final blessing to the people before his death, he calls the law which God presented to him for the Israelites an eish da’at, a fiery law. The law transformed the people in the desert from one thing to another.
Do you know what the first element mentioned in Torah is? The 2nd verse of all of Torah reads “And the earth was without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And a wind from God moved upon the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:2)
Water is also potentially dangerous. And it’s also powerful. It’s also beautiful. But water is tangible, you can feel it and taste it. And it’s truly everywhere. In fact, wherever you are, you keep drilling down, you will find water. Water is our foundation.
I see now that we can divide the Torah into the Torah of Water and the Torah of Fire.
The Torah of Water is a fluid narrative, it travels great distances over long periods of time. It is nourishing, and it gives life to our people. It starts with Genesis, with that second verse of Torah, and ends, we could say, with Parashat Beshallach, the climactic event of the Exodus, when Moses raises his staff and God parts the Red Sea and the Israelites cross through the water to freedom, in our literal birth narrative. Water flows, and it always flows down, to the foundation of life, of peoplehood, itself.
The Torah of Fire destroys to reinvent, it transforms what was into what will last forever. It starts, perhaps, with the scene at Mt. Sinai, where the Israelites are in the desert having followed Moses’ instructions to prepare themselves to receive God on the mountain. God descends upon the mountain baeish, in fire, the shofar blows, and Moses ascends. The Torah of Fire continues with the episode of The Golden Calf, where fire transforms the Israelites’ gold into an idol and Moses burns the idol back down to dust. The fire had to consume their idolatrous lack of faith before they could receive the next fire, the eish da’at, the fiery law. After receiving and accepting the law, the Torah turns to the responsibilities of the people to make offerings to God, through fire. Through these rituals, they will become holy to God and a holy people. Fire reaches up, it is aspirational.
Both fire and water make appearances in the other’s Torah. At the Burning Bush, in the Torah of Water, the fire that burns unconsumed is God’s first call to Moses. It establishes God’s presence in a much more physical way than we have seen up to this point in Torah. God speaks to the patriarchs and matriarchs, but isn’t a form. Perhaps we see here a changing relationship between God and God’s people Israel ahead as the Exodus story gets on its way. Fire is the symbol of this coming transformation.
And in Numbers 20, in the Torah of Fire, the Israelites are still wandering in the desert, and they complain bitterly that they have no water. Moses strikes a rock and water gushes forth. The act is so egregious to God that this seals Moses’ fate: he will not enter the Promised Land. Moses’ act was so rash, so devoid of faith, it made water appear in the Torah of Fire. Here water is the symbol of a punishable offense.
Parashat Tzav, where we are tonight, is firmly situated in the Torah of Fire. The flow of narrative has stopped. We are not reaching down to the foundation we are reaching upward with the smoke of the sacrifices, to relationship with God. We are no longer floating down the river in the sunshine supported on a raft, we are sitting on the ground at night watching the campfire. We can smell the burning wood, we can hear the crackle, we can feel the heat. It was fun floating down that river, seeing what was on either bank, traveling a great distance as the stories connected one to another to another. This is captivating in a different way. We can watch the flames dance. We can follow the smoke as it ascends up and consider our relationship with God. And we can follow the sparks as they fly in all directions, perhaps toward those sitting on the other side, and we can consider our relationships with other human beings. There is a special magic. It is the flames that transform the everyday into the holy. Torah says we are the everyday that must be transformed into holy, through law and through ritual. We must read the rest of the Torah through the flames and aspire to that holiness.