Ever since I was a little girl, I have been captivated by fire. Not in a destructive sense, but by the flames burning, dancing around with varying colors. I’d sit in front of my parents’ fireplace for hours just watching the dance. Living in Los Angeles for six years, I quickly became aware of fire’s disruptive side and the devastation that it can bring. Seeing huge forest fires consume trees, houses, and lives mystified me. What can start out as beautiful dancing flames can quickly turn into a damaging force without gentle care.
In a similar way, fire plays multiple roles in our lives as Jews. We use fire to differentiate between sacred time and the ordinary week. Every week we light two small fires as we begin Shabbat, and then another larger flame as Shabbat leaves us in Havdallah. We also use fire to change the quality of our utensils from treif to kosher, and we refrain from making fires during sacred times. Fire can be beautiful and symbolic or destructive and scary, but these dual modalities go back much further than our current traditions.
Our parshah this week, Sh’mini, introduces us to the rules and regulations of the priesthood and dietary laws, including a laundry list of animals that are considered acceptable for eating and those that are not. We’re in the middle of the story of Aaron and his sons, Nadav, Avihu, Itamar, and Eleazar and the newly ordained priests. One of the central roles of the priests is to offer sacrifices on behalf of the people. And, of course in the barbecuing of sacrifices, there are flames and fire involved. God gives Aaron and his sons specific instructions on how to do this, but Nadav and Avihu get carried away by their authority and misuse the powerful flames of God. This mistake costs Nadav and Avihu their lives, and just as they sinned by offering strange fire, they are consumed by the fire of God.
Again we’re on the sea-saw between the fire of sanctification and the fire of destruction, between sacred and profane. This continues to be the theme as God gives more specific rules to Aaron on the priesthood, stating in chapter 10 verses 9-10 that “this is a law for all time throughout the ages, for you must distinguish between the sacred and the profane and between the impure and the pure…” Aaron’s job is to continue to teach the Israelite people these distinctions.
God says L’havdil, “to know the difference,” between holy and ordinary, between clean and unclean. This is the same root used for Havdallah, the ceremony separating Shabbat and holidays from ordinary weekdays. God tells Aaron that his job is to notice subtle differences and how time, objects, and people can be transformed. The differences are marked by the flames burning, not only on the outside, but within. The fire of God is a spark that lives within each of God’s creations. Sometimes our light is bright, shining and radiant. Sometimes we bring light, love and laughter to the world. L’havdil – on the other side – sometimes our light is diminished. We are sad, burned out, and cold. Our job is to notice when our fires are low and help one another fan the flames into their usual, resilient splendor so that our world will again be warmed by the beautiful dancing flames of holiness and joy.
Family Discussion Questions:
- Our ‘ethical covenant’ speaks of Kedushah, holiness, as a means towards creating a more peaceful society. How does taking into account the differences in people, time, and objects help us become more attuned to our society?
- Can you think of other ways in Judaism that we mark separation between things in customs and events?