Religious Fire

Religious zeal is on the rise around the world. It can be a wonderful blessing, and it can be a horrible curse. It all depends on how humans with free will manage it.

When God allows a Divine Flame to be ignited within the soul of an individual or within the collective soul of a community, the Almighty is empowering people to let the flame inspire them to live the godly life, to take the principles and ideals they associate with God into their hearts and souls and, in so doing, to draw closer to God in sacred intimacy. The ideals of love, compassion and justice then shape how they live their lives and how they define their relationships with other human beings, and they become partners with God in the daily process of renewing and completing the act of creation.

But God also runs a risk when a Divine Flame is shared with humankind. People can abuse the flame by believing that they and no one else are its sole bearers. They can be impelled by their egos — individually or collectively — to determine that the flame should be used to burn and destroy other humans whom they have defined as being devoid of the flame and, hence, in need of being purged.

They can allow themselves to play God and choose who shall live and who shall die. Sometimes they are willing to destroy themselves in the process, which they falsely interpret as opening a direct route to union with the Divine. This abuse of the flame results in the unleashing of primal chaos into the world and the undoing of God’s creative activity, threatening the world’s very existence.

The Divine Flame plays a central role in Parshat Shemini. Moses instructs Aaron and his sons, the priests and the elders of Israel to prepare to offer certain sacrifices as mandated by God. He concludes with exciting news: “For today the Lord will appear to you!” (Leviticus 9:4).

Once the offering is prepared and placed on the altar by the priests in conformity with God’s command, and once Moses and Aaron had blessed the people, “the presence of the Lord appeared to all the people. Fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar.

And all the people saw, and shouted and fell on their faces” (Leviticus 9:23-28).

What an awesome, powerful moment of engagement between God and the Children of Israel. It was intended to demonstrate to the people that when God’s will was carried out, the Divine Presence, represented by the flame that came down from heaven, would be with them.

By way of contrast, we learn in a Midrash found in the Talmud Yerushalmi (Yoma 1:5) that during the seven days of the consecration of the priests, when Moses functioned as high priest, the Shekhinah did not descend. Only after Aaron, wearing the vestments of the high priest, officiated at the altar, did the Shekhinah descend.

This means that the Divine Flame could appear in the midst of the people only when those whom God had designated to tend that fire — Aaron and his sons — were in charge of the worship in the Tabernacle. As great as he was, Moses could not bring the Divine Flame into the midst of the people.

Realizing the power of the flame, it was God’s intention that it be managed and channeled only by people whom God had chosen and to whom God had given specific instructions. They would be responsible tenders of the flame.

But, alas, God did not take into account the power of the human ego. Immediately after the wondrous appearance of the flame, the zeal of the moment engulfed Aaron’s two eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, but with disastrous results. On their own initiative — and contrary to the will of God — they brought strange fire into the Tabernacle (Leviticus 10:1). And, in an instant, “a fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord” (Leviticus 10:2).

Note the language. It is nearly identical to language that describes the first appearance of the Divine Flame in 9:24. I suggest that the Torah’s message is clear. The Divine Flame and the religious fervor that accompanies it can be a blessing, when the flame is handled with care and the fervor expresses itself in a way that conforms to the wishes of the Author of the flame. When the zeal engendered by the flame is abused by the power of human ego, the same flame becomes a destructive force.

Devoted adherents of the three religions that affirm a belief in the one God, who shared the Divine Flame through the faith and zeal of Abraham, Moses, Aaron, Miriam and the like, espouse a profound commitment to making God’s love, compassion and justice realities in the world.

Let the zeal of these true people of spirit fill all of God’s creation, allowing no room for the egotistical zeal of the false prophets of destruction.

Joel Rembaum is senior rabbi at Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles.