Vayikra: Fire from Heaven, Fire from the Heart

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayikra

The English title of the 3rd book of the Torah, “Leviticus,” gives us some
hint of the book’s contents: it is largely, though not exclusively,
concerned with the priests and their rituals in the Mishkan, or
portable Sanctuary. (Hence “Leviticus,” from the Levites, who are the
priests and their assistants.)

However, the Hebrew name for this book, taken from the first verse,
has a different nuance: “Vayikra” means “He called,” and refers to God
calling to Moshe from the Tent of Meeting. “He called” as a book title
might make you think of relationships, and in fact the entire ritual
framework of the Mishkan and priesthood was a means to bring about a
relationship between God and the people Israel- the very word
“Mishkan” is related to the idea of “dwelling place” for the Divine
Presence among the people.

Thus even commentaries which seem rather technical in nature,
referring to details of the offerings and priestly ritual, can contain
great insight into what our sages believed about how to nurture a
relationship with the Sacred- or perhaps any relationship. In Vayikra
1:7, we read that the priests were to bring fire to the altar when
making a “burnt offering:”

“And the descendants of Aaron the kohen shall place fire on the altar,
and arrange wood on the fire. . . . ” (Vayikra/Leviticus 1:7)

Now, if you’ve been following my commentaries for a while, it should
not surprise you that our friend Rashi would have something to say
here- you can almost hear him ask (in a medieval French accent, of
course): “Fire? Why does the Torah have to mention the priests
bringing fire? It was for a burnt offering- of course they had to
bring fire! The mention of fire must teach something important. . . . ”

And thus, answering his own question, Rashi tells us (quoting from the
Talmud):

“shall place fire on the altar. . . Even though the fire descended
from heaven, it was a commandment for an ordinary one to bring fire to
the altar.” (Rashi on 1:7)

Let’s leave for another time the question of why the ancient texts
believed that fire came from Heaven to consume the offerings on the
altar. For today, it’s enough to take Rashi’s teaching as a striking
visual metaphor for what we now call “spirituality,” often understood
as experiencing something beyond or greater than oneself, which in
turn expands and transforms the very experience and conception of
self. Think of it this way: a spiritual experience cannot be entirely
an act of will, or we’d all be having them all the time. There is an
element of touching or experiencing a greater reality, and this
reality is apprehended or perceived to the extent that we let it in,
as it were.

Now, back to our image of the fire from heaven: even though the fire
“comes from heaven”- that is, spirituality must be about something
greater than ourselves, which we experience as humbling and awesome-
it’s also true that we have to create the conditions under which our
“fire” can touch the fire from heaven. Imagine two flames touching,
like on a havdalah candle used at the end of Shabbat: the fires are
one flame, entirely together, even if they are from two sources.

This, to me, is an image which describes what it means to have a
relationship with or experience of the Divine Presence: I am not God,
and God is not me, but to the extent that my ego is humbled and my
heart is open there exists the possibility of moments when the Image
or spark of Divinity within me touches, embraces, becomes one with the
greater One. It’s just like intimacy between human beings: nobody can
force it or will it to happen, but one can create the conditions under
which it’s more likely to happen, by extending and opening and
softening oneself. That’s why humans have to bring the fire to the
altar- it must be a mutual reaching out for the relationship to be real.

A fire from heaven, a fire from the human heart- but one flame. This
is an image of true prayer, true service, true love, true intimacy,
true devotion, the truest experience of being human, one made in the
Divine Image. It’s terrifying and beautiful at the same time, and it’s
entirely up to us to bring our fire to make it happen.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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