[I] have always been fascinated by fire. As a child growing up I was often admonished for this dangerous fascination.
Fire indeed is a most fascinating phenomenon; its burning rage is indifferent to everybody and everything. Upon encountering fire, a red apple, a white paper and a brown coat, will become uniform – black, charred and tasteless.
What is it about fire that makes it indifferent to the qualities of everything it comes in contact with?
Fire is the diametrical opposite of complacency. Everything physical has a comfort zone, a point where it will just be itself without feeling a need to go anywhere. Even flowing water which doesn’t adhere to the principle of remaining stationary can be contained by a shore of sand or the glass walls of a pitcher.
Not fire. Wherever you put it, it will try to leave, to soar upwards, burning and destroying anything in its way. If you try to stop it, it will either burn through or disappear.
Where is the fire going? That’s a really good question. It’s not going for a promotion; it won’t evolve into anything greater and stronger than it already is. Fire likes to become obsolete; it likes
to turn into nothingness.
Yup, that’s right: Not only is fire a destructive force to everything around it, it is self-destructive too; it allots itself the same fate as it bestows upon anything it comes in contact with.
How does fire do that? G-d created the world using four elements: heat, moisture, space and earth-like matter. Various blends of these four elements create very different creatures, from the complex human brain to simple stones. The color, taste and texture of any given physical object, even its possibility of being or not being an animated creature, are a result of a different formula
of the same ingredients.
Fire has the power to tear apart this phenomenal blend of elements: the fire will suck away the heat, while the air and moisture will make an exit through the billowing smoke, leaving a pile of black ashes, the remaining element of dust which never leaves its place unless a stronger force moves it. Whether it was a steak that burned or a piece of bread, now that the three other elements are gone, the remaining dust is the same black and crumbly substance.
Counter to what we would think, G-d isn’t the one who chose to destroy the first and second temple. We, through our misdeeds, caused this un
fortunate outcome, the repercussions of which we suffer to this day.
G-d however, did choose the method of destruction, fire. It was to mirror the cause of the destruction, a destruction of the spiritual values the temple represented and embodied which were consumed by the flames of sin. Like fire, our urge to sin is an urge to become obsolete; we want to do an act whose gratification will last but for a few moments while the ripple effect will cause us suffering—both spiritual and physical—for a long time after. Like the young child who is fascinated by fire and strikes a match, the same match which burns down his very own toys and home.
When a person sins, he commits an act that “separates” the natural order of life, where everything is a perfect blend of physicality and spirituality, of mind, matter and spirit. This blend was designed to ensure the continuation of a colorful, interesting and fulfilling life. But the raging fire of self-gratification gets excited by the red hot flames and just leaves us moments later with a sad pile of dust – a life void of any true happiness and pleasure, physical or spiritual, just plain apathy.
Where fire has destroyed, there is only one way to repair: fire. “You, O G-d, have ignited the temple with fire, and you are destined to rebuild it with fire” (from the Tisha B’Av liturgy of Nachem)
The antidote to the fire of sin is the fire of love. The love of G-d is likened many a time to flames of fire, these productive flames consume the destructive flames. They do so by instilling within us the very same “rage” of fire, the idea of selflessness, of wanting to become obsolete by becoming part of something greater than ourselves. This fire separates and breaks down everything which is alien to this truth, reverting it to dust and nothingness, because it brings to light the absolute truth that “there is nothing besides for Him.” This is the key to redemption, to a temple built of flames, to a Jerusalem surrounded by a wall of flames, to a new and better reality in which hate and sin become worthless, because the fire of love is raging.
This fire replaces destruction with rebuilding, hate with love, sadness with joy.
It’s a fire of light and of warmth. And the match is in the hand of each and every one of us, waiting to be struck.
This thought was inspired by a discourse of Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch following a fire in his study. Read the Hebrew original here.