Yitro: Grow the Fire

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Yitro

This week’s Torah portion is Yitro, named for Moshe’s father-in-law,
who helps Moshe with a few management problems. Then even bigger
things happen: Moshe is told to prepare the people for a great
revelation, which happens on Sinai, amid thunder and lighting and
smoke and the sound of the shofar.

Our haftarah this week also has images of smoke and fire: the prophet
Yeshayahu [Isaiah] is visited by seraphim- angelic beings- who take a
coal to his lips as a sign of his commission as a prophet:

” I cried,

‘Woe is me; I am lost!
For I am a man of unclean lips
And I live among a people
Of unclean lips;
Yet my own eyes have beheld
The King Lord of Hosts.’

Then one of the seraphs flew over to me with a live coal, which he
had taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. He touched it to my
lips and declared,

Now that this has touched your lips,
Your guilt shall depart
And your sin be purged away.’ ” (Yeshayahu/ Isaiah 6:5-7)

A connection to the Torah, if not exactly this portion, is obvious:
when God first commissions Moshe, Moshe also objects, saying that his
lips and tongue are slow (cf. Exodus 4.) In both cases, the prophet
seems to be saying: why me? I’m unworthy and impure- surely there is
somebody better than me to speak this message!

So far, so good- the humility evoked in both Moshe and Yeshayahu is
both poignant and appropriate for one who has just had an overwhelming
“spiritual experience.” I’d even go so far as to say that it would be
disturbing if a prophet did not feel unworthy- after all, a great
leader knows the enormity of their task and surely knows their own
weaknesses and sin better than anybody else. The image of the coal
touching the lips of the prophet seems to imply that imperfection is
not a barrier to service. This too is a welcome message for all of us
radically imperfect people who nevertheless hope to bring something
good into the world.

S. R. Hirsch sees the image of the coal rather differently: he does
not see this image as about the prophet’s unworthiness, but about his
great capabilities. Hirsch compares the word for “coal,” in the verse
above, to words which mean “covered,” and thus brings the insight that
the coal or charcoal touched to the prophets lip’s was not burning hot
(as in the image of burning away Yeshayahu’s sins) but was cold on the
outside, with only a small glow of remnant heat in the center of the
coal. In this view, the angel touched the coal to Yeshayahu’s lips not
to purify him instantly, but to show him that there remained a spark
of holy fire which could be brought into blazing heat with the
prophet’s breath in the form of words. This, in turn, is a metaphor
for the prophet’s mission: to seek the embers of faith and devotion
under the exterior of a cynical people, and bring it forth into
something more beautiful and holy.

Not only that, but this turns around our notion of how a person is
“purged” of sin or guilt: not by angels from the outside, but through
bringing forth his own faith, from the inside, and engaging with
people and helping them to grow and change. What makes the prophet
worthy of his mission is not the encounter with the angel, as such,
but the subsequent actions of living out that encounter.

Personally, I love the image of the prophet having a cold coal touched
to his lips, with the angel saying: “feel that little bit of heat on
the inside? It’s your job to make it grow!” This is the image of the
prophet as partner, as a human being with a human task: to start with
a small flame and make it grow. That’s a task that each of us can take
on, and we don’t need a seraph to get started.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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