Fire: Why Now? by Leiby Deutsch

(2014/5774)

Last Shabbat, in Parashat Ki Tisa, we read about the mysterious and rebellious sin of the Cheit HaEigel. Many Sefarim and commentaries have tried, in one way or another, to explain how a nation that had just been introduced into an eternal religious covenant violated it in a mere 38 days. The gravity of the situation notwithstanding, Hashem forgave Bnei Yisrael for the Eigel, and in its aftermath, Bnei Yisrael built the Mishkan. Parashat Ki Tisa concludes with the culmination of the aftermath of the Cheit HaEigel: Moshe presenting the second set of Luchot. The very first thing that the Torah records following the Eigel, in the beginning of Parashat VaYakheil, is the prohibition against lighting a fire on Shabbat. Usually, something that is said or done in the aftermath of a crisis is meant to respond to what had just occurred, often to prevent it from happening again. However, in this case, there is seemingly no connection between the prohibition against lighting fires on Shabbat and the Cheit HaEigel that preceded it. What is the point of the prohibition emerging in the aftermath of Bnei Yisrael’s terrible sin?

An understanding of how fire is used throughout Tanach sheds light (no pun intended) on this question. Fire is used both times Bnei Yisrael accepted the Torah, at Har Sinai, and at Har HaKarmel during the time of Eliyahu HaNavi. At Har Sinai, Hashem’s pyrotechnics were used in order to reveal Hashem’s power and his dominance over the natural elements to Bnei Yisrael. To some extent, it was also meant to scare Bnei Yisrael. According to Tosafot (Shabbat 88a), the fire scared Bnei Yisrael so much that Hashem had to hold Har Sinai directly above the heads of Bnei Yisrael and threaten to drop it on them if they did not take the Torah. At Har HaKarmel, Hashem sent a fire down onto a water-soaked Mizbei’ach in order to prove that the Nevi’ei HaBa’al were wrong to worship the Ba’al, which made them afraid to the point that they immediately declared, “Hashem Hu HaElokim” (I Melachim 18:39). Throughout Tanach, fire is a symbol of revelation and seems to result in fear.

Based on a Pasuk in this week’s Parashah, we learn that one can use fire on Yom Tov, if lit from an existing flame. Do our Biblical findings about fire in Tanach imply that one should be fearful of our daily lives on Yom Tov? Do we not have the Mitzvah of VeSamachta BeChagecha, to be happy on holidays, and the Pasuk, “Ivdu Et Hashem BeSimchah,” “Serve Hashem with happiness” (Tehillim 100:2)? We understand that special Korbanot, offerings, which required fire as part of the procedure for their preparation, were brought in response to certain events. The Korban Chat’at was brought by someone who committed certain Aveirot. The Todah and the Shelamim were brought during times of happiness, and the Korban Mussaf was sacrificed on Yom Tov, something that is controlled by mankind in declaring Rosh Chodesh that month. Fire also represents a person’s actions. It is used when acknowledging something important and achieving success in an endeavor.

What is the true meaning behind the message of fire? Fire has an inherent trait of being scary, harmful, and destructive. On the other hand, fire also has the ability to fascinate and mesmerize, giving pleasure to those who look at it. What determines which element of fire’s nature one sees is not dictated by the flame, but by the person’s perspective of the flame. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik once said that when overcoming grief, the question considered should not be, “Why did this happen?” for the answer will always be eternally evasive to those who do not understand Hashem’s ways. The question that should be considered is, “What course of action should I take next? How should I respond?”

Hashem commanded in response to the Cheit HaEigel, “Lo Teva’aru Eish,” “You shall not kindle fire” (Shemot 35:3). Hashem is trying to tell Bnei Yisrael that things in the future may be frightening. It is at that point that Bnei Yisrael will have to make a decision between two fires. One fire will be the fire of fear, the fire that will make them wonder, “Why us?” That fire will compel them to do nothing but be engrossed in their own tragedy and fear. This fire is regarded as “Teva’aru,” “You will kindle,” meaning, “You will let it burn until it consumes you.” Hashem is telling Bnei Yisrael not to let that fire burn on Shabbat. The other fire is the fire that responds to a person’s actions and a person’s successes. That fire is the fire that burns on Yom Tov. One should let that fire burn brightly within, because when one takes action, he will achieve what he tries to do. This is the fire that ultimately will lead a person back to where he once was, a place of happiness.

In the coming weeks, we will be celebrating Purim, which was based on evil plots that were planned throughout the storyline the Megillah. One may ask how it is possible that we were victorious, with such odds against us. The importance of  Esther HaMalkah in the victory cannot be overlooked. When the Jews learn of Haman’s decree, all of the Jews, even Mordechai himself, begin to mourn. They all wallow in the evil of the decree. However, there is one person who does not resign to the situation. Esther realizes that not all is lost. Esther understands what she needs to do to save the Jews, not what the Jews stand to lose. It is because of her that we were set on track to ending Galut Bavel. May it be with our actions that we merit to share in each other’s happiness, the happiness of success and redemption.

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