January 13, 2012

On the final page of the Talmud, Masechet Chagigah, as with so many rabbinic texts, there is a "siyum meshichi" or triumphant conclusion. Discussing the incense altar, which was plated with just a thin layer of gold over the acacia wood, the rabbis say that it was miraculous that the intense heat of burning incense wouldn't damage the wood underneath; so too the fire of Gehenna does not affect the teachers of Torah, or even anyone who practices the mitzvot. In the Midrash Tanchuma on our parshah, it says that the miracle was made possible by a heavenly form of fire that burns but does not consume. This is the same "black fire" of the Torah. Thus the incense altar was able to contain the heat of heavenly fire without destroying its container; so too the bush noticed by Moses was burning with "eish shel ma'alah" and thus not consumed.

My take, based on these rabbinic texts, is that it is a rare divine gift to be aflame with heavenly light that does not destroy.  Usually, intense religious passion has a consuming power, destroying that which seeks to contain it, and also that which surrounds it.  This is what caught the attention of Moses.  Surely he had seen fires before, and certainly he had noticed religious passion in his day.  But this was different--a divine apparition that was commanding, but not threatening, a bush that burned but was not consumed.

At CSI, we just had a lecture last week discussing Jewish/Black relations and are working hard at our interfaith relations with other faiths in the area.  For all of the varieties of faith and practice, the essential quality that I look for is this type of "eish shel ma'alah." Is this a religious passion that nurtures without destroying? Or is this a type of passion that is out of control, contaminated by politics, jealousy, greed and hatred?  This week’s parsha, Parshat Shemot and the subsequent parashiot bring us into the heart of religious quest--the contest of belief. What will Israel believe, and do? What will the Egyptians believe and do? What type of faith will Israel develop? Will it be an eish shel ma'alah, or an eish okhelet, a consuming fire?

It seems that our parshah points to a quality test of revelation. The burning bush is not a sign of passivity--it is dynamic and commanding. It contains the power to refocus the life of Moses, and the course of human history. It does lead to violent confrontation, but seeks to contain this for the sake of justice and freedom rather than revenge (OK, I admit there is some revenge too; the fire does not remain pure in our hands). The fire that burns and perhaps purifies but does not destroy--this is the form of faith that we aspire to develop within ourselves, and for which we search among our neighbors of other religious traditions. Finding that, we can enter into relationship without fear, celebrating the ways in which our respective lights burn in all their radiance and holiness.

As we turn to Shabbat Shemot, and follow it with the remarkable days of MLK day, it is notable that some of our leaders have shown the capacity to pursue justice with passion and perseverance, but without succumbing to the angry and destructive rhetoric that often contaminates such passion. May the example of Dr. King place before all of us a vision of glory--of a purifying passion--that can inspire our leaders to achieve the great goals of justice, prosperity and peace.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham