As wildfires erupted this week across our city and state, we were forced to encounter the sheer power of this destructive phenomenon. Our tradition, like many others, has a deep and multi-faceted relationship to fire. This ranges from its use in weekly ritual (lighting the Shabbat and havdalah candles) to its metaphorical significance (e.g., in Deuteronomy, Gd describes Gdself as “a consuming fire”). There’s an implicit appreciation that fire is something which warrants respect, lest it get out of control and destroy. Accordingly, I was also reminded how our relationship to fire provides us with a means for better understanding our relationship with Gd and Gdliness.
In his book Orot HaKodesh (Lights of Holiness), Rav Kook, the great 20th century rabbi of Palestine, writes about both the Gdliness within and the Gdliness throughout us:
Every person must know and understand
That a candle burns deep within them.
And one’s candle is unlike their friend’s,
And that no one without a candle exists.
That one must strive to uncover
The light of their candle publicly
And light it into a great torch
To enlighten the whole world.
Rav Kook’s imagery of candles, fire, and light provide us with incredible insight into understanding our place in the world and the accompanying responsibilities to both ourselves and the world beyond ourselves. The reality that we have multiple responsibilities means that there is the potential for them to be in conflict with each other. Yet, in the final lines of the poem, Rav Kook majestically illuminates our charge for harmonizing our multiple responsibilities for a purpose greater than just ourselves – enlightening the whole world.
Rav Kook’s poem speaks to the importance of integrating a sense of honor for ourselves within the context of our connection and responsibility to others. However, as many of us have learned, when left to our own devices, we often lack this type of integration and tend to spend a disproportionate amount of energy leaning one way or the other. Fortunately, we have found that the path of recovery provides us with an alternative course and a means for building a more balanced and integrated life.
This week’s parashah also provides us with a series of great examples about the perils of falling into the extremes of living too much for ourselves or others. Through the stories of Noah and later of the construction of the Tower of Babel, the Torah provides us with deep insights into the dangers of either living excessively for oneself or, conversely, giving up on our sense of uniqueness for the sake of the collective.
Starting with Noah, we are introduced to a notable figure, one whom the Torah explicitly describes as righteous. Noah stands out among all of his neighbors, which makes him the best option available to help with Gd’s continual attempts to establish a world worthy of reflecting Gd’s Holiness. In somewhat of a “do-over,” Gd reveals to Noah his plan to eliminate the entirety of civilization through a flood and then intends to for Noah and his family re-populate the world. The basis for the impending destruction is society’s lawlessness and corruption. In other words, aside from Noah, everyone was living exclusively for themselves, only looking out for “what’s in it for them” and lacking any regard for the well-being of others.
The Noah narrative provides us with a model for the risks and consequences of living exclusively for ourselves. While, even if our actions are not explicitly “lawless,” our selfishness continually corrupts our connection to the needs of the world beyond ourselves. It is important to note that the Torah provides us with an example of the dangers of swinging too far to the other extreme, when our over attachment to the collective causes us to lose our connection to our own unique Holiness. This is the story of the building (and destruction) of the Tower of Babel. In this case, the people were so unified in their collective efforts that they were blinded to a connection with Gd. They became so enraptured with their ability to build that they confused their worship of their own (collective) abilities with the worship of Gd. The Tower of Babel story shows us the potential danger of losing ourselves in collective thinking, disregarding the unique Holy Soul within ourselves.
As we’ll see in the coming weeks, the Torah continues to provide us with characters who, while imperfect, are better models of integrated living. Abraham, Joseph, and Miriam are individuals who combine a strong sense of themselves with a sense of their responsibility for others. As we light the Shabbat candles this evening, may we be reminded of our capacity to light and honor the spark of Holiness within and draw from it to honor that which is beyond us.
Chaplain Adam Siegel