Table for Five: Vaetchanan

Be Like Fire
July 27, 2023

One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a zealous God.

– Deut. 4:24

Rabbi Lori Shapiro
Open Temple/Founder

Writing from the Crow Reservation north of Wyoming and bordering Montana, the land is on fire. Thick with ash from Canada’s fires, the burnt orange sunrises cast a specter across the land, a seeming shadow from battles on these native soils almost 150 years ago and reading like Biblical accounts of war. 

Moses’ poetic implorations in Vaetchanan seem to echo upon this land of Crow and Arapaho. Expansive and vast, with rising mountains in the west, it feels as if this land is connected to Mt. Nebo, and Moses’ pleas whisper to us in the wind. Indeed, Moses stands less like Custer before his final battle and more like Tatanka Iyotake, aka Sitting Bull, a spiritual leader himself whose words “Truth, Justice and Wisdom” could have been written by  a rabbi. As Moses watches from a perch atop a hillside and implores the Israelites to remember the mystical transmission at Horeb, today, at Bull Run, we witness modern-day consuming fires on the land as God’s zealous fires burn smoke from the north. 

The Land is ours to conquer or cultivate, to create civilization or destroy it. The Land invites us to hear the wisdom of our ancestors, now rendered as ferrous and calcium buried below our feet and alchemized into the rocks upon which we stand. The Land “devours like fires which do not leave root or branch” (Ibn Ezra) and burn with total consumption, a warning from Moses in his final plea to the Israelites, or like a prophecy from Sitting Bull … and we must listen or face our last stand. 

Rabbi Ari Schwarzberg
Shalhevet High School

I imagine that we all read this parsha as cautionary: if you mess with idolatry you will face the consequences of a fiery and zealous God. Idol worship, an act of betrayal, is met with an intense and harsh response. The same phrase, E-l Kanna, also appears in the Ten Commandments following the commandment not to fashion nor worship idols. In the Torah Hashem is sometimes merciful while at other times vindictive and the two are not contradictory. 

But Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg, a 19th century German rabbi, offers an alternative read of this verse. Rather than interpreting the word kanah as kinah  — zealousness or envy — he suggests to think about kanah through a different verse in the Torah, one that refers to Hashem as the Koneh shamayim va’aretz – the Builder/Creator of the world. In that sense, R’ Mecklenberg suggests that the parsha here is telling us that Hashem is an E-l Kanna, a God that builds us up so we can receive the abundance of His blessings.  

This etymological shift changes the whole meaning of the parsha. It’s no longer a scary refrain about God’s potential wrath. In fact, the parsha is now incredibly supportive, offering a reason not to turn towards idolatry. Idolatry is empty and useless, it may not hurt you, but it won’t get you anywhere either. But a life that’s committed to the ways of Hashem will be a life that is perpetually one of ascent for such is the way of Hashem, an E-l Kanna.

Rabbi Jonathan Leener
Rabbi, Prospect Heights Shul, N.Y.

The sages (Sotah 14a) pondered the question of how one can be commanded to cleave to Hashem (Deuteronomy 13:5) while acknowledging Hashem as a “devouring flame.” 

One possible concern they had was the inherent impossibility of fire and humans coexisting intimately. Alternatively, they might have been troubled by the idea of the Torah commanding us to be annihilated in the very presence of Hashem. 

Animals are offered as korbanot, sacrifices, whereas human beings are not. However, what if we were to embrace this paradox in a metaphorical sense, envisioning our pursuit of Hashem as so intense and immersive that our sense of self is completely obliterated? 

While seeking balance in spiritual practice is essential, moments of transcendence are deeply rooted in our tradition as well. Dullness stands in stark contrast to the path of a seeker of Hashem. Fire is transformational; it is never content and always reaches higher, spreading out. We should strive to embody these properties. 

Perhaps we have become overly accustomed to maintaining a safe distance from the flames of religious passion. As the echo of the shofar reverberates in the near future, maybe this year’s call is to take a step closer and embrace the intensity. Perhaps this is the exact spark we need to reignite our own fires.

Rabbi Mendel Schwartz
The Chai Center

The Hassidic master, the Bal Shem Tov (Besht), taught his students, “everything in this world has a reason.” My father Rabbi Shlomo “Schwartzie” Schwartz called this “Bashertness.” Once, the students of the Besht were walking home from the study hall and noticed a group of Christians carrying a five-foot-tall sculptured cross carved from a brick of ice. The students went back to their master and asked him to explain why they needed to see this brick of ice. What was the reason it crossed their path and what was the lesson? The Besht responded that ice is hard and cold, uncomfortable to the touch. It is a reminder not to be hard or cold to another person. An “icy” person is one who displays carelessness and apathy. Fire and heat, on the other hand, represent passion and energy.

Not only is it OK to be an enthusiastic Jew, but it’s a mitzvah. There’s a reason Marvel and Disney depict G-d and the prophets as a ball of fire or the like. Being cold like ice is not a Jewish theme. It belongs in my glass of Diet Coke.

Nicholas Losorelli
4th year Student, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

God is described as “a consuming fire” immediately after a warning not to make idols, idols that are later described as being “gods of wood and stone,” materials which stand no chance against fire. One can marvel at the intricacies of woodcarvings, and the marble masterpieces that still “survive” from the Roman Empire, but despite their beauty, none of them will last forever. These things we make may feel tangible, and holding a small sculpture in your hand, feeling its weight could give you the illusion of its permanence, but one way or another it will be reduced to dust. Fire, on the other hand, has an intangibility to it. It is constantly changing its shape, its appearance varies depending on its heat, going so far as to become invisible at its hottest. Fire, like God, can’t be held in one’s hand, can’t be forced to hold a shape for too long, and when it’s working its hardest is often difficult to see. It is also destructive and constructive, both of which can be dangerous and awe-inspiring. 

With Elul approaching, I wonder what we are holding on to that feels permanent, and what potential letting those things go contains? I wonder what we could do, or who we could be, if like fire — and like God — we aspire to see ourselves as full of potential. Yes, if you play with fire, you may get burned, but what is comfortable and what is necessary for positive change are rarely the same. 

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