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Why a Jew Must Be On Fire

Why a Jew Must Be On Fire

Lag BaOmer, Bonfires, & the Secrets of the Kabbalah

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There’s an eerie likeness between a living soul and a raging fire.

Both, even while tamed, remain unpredictable. Both are insatiable. And both are driven to consume their very existence—the fire into oblivion, the soul to return to its origin Above.

So that a Jew that is not afire can hardly be said to be alive.Fire is who we are, and why we are here: To set the world aflame. Fire is who we are, and why we are here: To set the world aflame.

Could we have survived these past four millennia if we were not burning as a torch within?

Can we survive the tsunami of this era of rapid change if we have no timeless, inextinguishable fire?

Can we expect our children to carry the torch if they themselves are not aflame? Can a Jew who is not aflame be all that a Jew is meant to be in any time, in any place?

Can a Jew change the world rather than run from it, if not powered by a raging fire?

Where does the fire lie?

It lies dormant, within.

How do we ignite it?

We don’t ignite it from the hands and feet. If we tell a Jew what a Jew is supposed to do, the Jew may do it. But the fire will remain quiet, within. It cannot last. Nothing more but embers.

We don’t ignite it from the head. If we give the Jew reasons for those things a Jew does, so that it all makes sense and everything sits neatly and soundly in place, we have yet to fan the flames of that fire.

Yet the world about us continues to burn with a thousand raging fires, each calling out in its own manic voice, more forceful, more driven than any sense or reason. If the Jew does not find that inner fire, another fire will take its place.

We don’t ignite it from the heart. If we inspire the Jew with stories and by example, with our history and our pride, with song and lyrics that pick up the soul and inspire; even if we speak with those words the sages call “words that conquer the heart”—we have conquered,Ignite the Jew—not from the hands, not from the head, not from the heart—but from the spark within. but we have not empowered. We have warmed up the Jew, but we have yet to set the Jew afire.

We must ignite it from within.

Because even as the Jew lies like a stump of wood in the coldest, dampest swamp, even amidst the deepest, darkest mud, a Jew can burst into flames.

Because deep within the Jew, waiting to ignite, hides a secret spark. And deep within the Torah, awaiting its release, hides a secret wisdom.

Secrets whisper to secrets and awaken one another from their slumber. A spark within resonates, and cries out, “Yes, those are the words of my soul! Those are the words I was always struggling to speak, but could not find nor articulate! Those are the words that are me!”

The Jew bursts aflame.

Paradise and the Mule

The Torah, say the sages, has its own taxonomy. It consists of four layers.

The simple meaning of Torah is called p’shat. This is what every JewWhat is a paradise without secrets? must know, so that a Jew will do what a Jew must do.

Then there are explanations and meanings of the Torah, not always spelled out clearly. These meanings are accessed through remez, meaning hints, or allusions.

Then there are yet deeper meanings for which one must search, meanings that inspire the heart and lift the spirits. This layer is called drush.

Beyond them all is the layer of sod—the secrets of the Torah. True secrets—because even if they would be announced to all and sundry, they would remain secrets. They are closed and locked, accessible only to those whose soul already rings with the message they carry.

Together, the first letter of each of these levels spells out PRDS פרדס—the Hebrew equivalent for paradise, an orchard of beautiful trees, succulent fruits and songful birds. Together, you have a complete Torah.

But leave out the last letter—the letter of sod (secrets), and you have PRD פרד. In Hebrew, that is a mule, a cross between a horse and a donkey, an animal that is incapable of producing offspring.

Certainly, the secrets of Torah on their own are insufficient. A flame without oil and a wick is a fleeting mirage.

But without those secrets, the soul cannot progenerate. The Jew may be a good Jew. A G‑d fearing Jew. A Jew with many good deeds and much Torah.What is a soul without mystery? But can this Jew set the world aflame? Can this Jew set the next generation aflame? Can this Jew endure the flames about him, awaiting to consume him?

For this, there must be secrets. The transcendent. The mysterious and unknowable. Secrets that speak to the transcendent, mysterious and unknowable core of the soul.

The History of Fire and Jews

How can we teach secrets to every Jew?

For thousands of years, the secrets were the property of an elect few. For thousands of years, the secrets were for the elect few. Today, they are a necessity for each of us.There was an Abraham, an Isaac, a Jacob, a Moses. They were on fire and all were kept alight by their presence.

There were prophets who sat on the hilltops of Judea and in the caverns of the Negev, and contemplated the divine and taught their secrets to their initiates.

There were sages following them, Rabbi Yonatan ben Uziel who burned with such a fire while he learned that they say a bird flying overhead would be roasted in midair. Rabbi Akiva, who entered Paradise and returned, while his companions were consumed in the light.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai who, in his later years, was surrounded by a fire so that only his closest disciples could approach him. On the day of his passing, his entire house was surrounded by fire, as he taught the deepest wisdom of the hidden knowledge. That is why we light bonfires on Lag BaOmer, the anniversary of that day of passing. We yearn for his fire.

Much later were the Kabbalists of Tzfat, whose fiery teachings reinvigorated a generation wearied and broken by the calamity of the Spanish expulsion. Among them was the Ari Hakadosh—”the Holy Lion”—Rabbi Isaac Luria, whose teachings of tikun spread like wildfire from the Holy Land throughout Europe and the Arabic lands.

Yet, all along, the secrets were only for scholars, for those whose souls were complete and prepared to contain the light. Leaked elsewhere, the depth of the rich metaphor in which they were wrapped was lost. They were fire in the hands of those who did not know how to harness fire. Fire, when harnessed, provides great power. Unharnessed, it will consume and carry a soul away from this world.

Until, in the fifth century of the sixth millennium of the Hebrew calendar—the dawn of the eve of the cosmic Shabbat according to Talmudic tradition—Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov began to apply the innermost secrets of the Torah to the lives of the common Jew.

The Baal Shem TovThe Baal Shem Tov had extracted that fire’s very essence, and that essence was the property of every soul. and his disciples found the words, the stories, the wrapping needed to transport the deepest secrets outward and inward into every heart. They were able to harness the fire because the Baal Shem Tov had extracted its very essence, and that essence was the property of every soul.

Ordinary, simple Jews began to dance and sing with love and joy for their G‑d, for their Torah, and for their love of one another. Souls were set afire.

The Baal Shem Tov’s Secret

What was the Baal Shem Tov’s secret?

He didn’t tell the Jew of a reward awaiting a soul in heaven.

He didn’t explain how acting as a Jew would be beneficial to all.

He didn’t prove the existence of G‑d, or G‑d’s oneness, or the authenticity of Torah or Jewish tradition.

The Baal Shem Tov told the Jew, “Wherever you may stray, however you are, in whatever you may see or hear, there is your G‑d.”

He spoke of a love that transcends all loves, the love of a parent to an only child born in later years, and yet deeper, so that there could be no fissure that could break this love, no abyss in which to escape it, no darkness in which this love could not shine.

The Baal Shem Tov told the Jew, “Hear O Israel! This is your G‑d! You and your G‑d are one!”“Hear O Israel! This is your G‑d! You and your G‑d are one!”

And the Jew said, “Yes. That is the love I know within my heart. That is the G‑d that breathes within me. These are the secrets of my soul speaking to me.”

Once its secrets had found their way out, the soul was open to hear more and yet more. The flames ran their course through the veins of the Jew, into every word of Torah studied, every word of prayer uttered, every mitzvah performed, every interaction with every other soul, and with everything in which the Jew could find the infinite light, the eternal fire of G‑d.

Today, there is no alternative. Every Jew must be set aflame. We must find the spark within even a heart of cold, wet stone. As a nuclear reactor harnesses the energy of the atom and puts it to good use, we must ignite the infinite power of the soul and direct it to infinite good.

And we will ignite the entire world in the same way, so that it too knows that it is one with G‑d.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at Chabad.org, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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Chris Australia May 15, 2017

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Is it only spirit it seems can appreciate empathy? The likeness between fire and spirit both require care and respect which is always due them. Truly wonderful article. Shalom. Reply

Anonymous May 14, 2017

What an illuminance? What an inspiration.
I feel the fire. Todah rabah Rabbi Freeman. Reply

Vivienne May 13, 2017

Todah rabah Rabbi Freeman,
I ditto what Chaya stated and what Ann also concurred. Your words of wisdom and expression of thought are indeed a blessing to us all. Reply

Sara USA May 13, 2017

Ann and Chaya, below, and the other commenters, speak for me regarding this wonderful article and author, Rabbi Tzvi Freeman! What a gift! Thank you! Reply

Leah England May 12, 2017

Thanks. You write so beautifully and you explain the concepts of Kabbalah in a way that inspires me! Reply

Debra May 12, 2017

The greatest sod leads one back to the p’shat in cycles of wonder. Love, in all its depth, breadth, and infinities, is simple. Thank you Tzvi for your beautiful writings filled with Light and Love! Hag Sameach! Reply

ann canada May 9, 2017

Of course something written so beautifully and brilliantly had to have come from the desk of Rabbi Tzvi Freeman. Todah rabah Rabbi Tzvi, you are a true light--and it was good to see you on Sal and Nina's show. Reply

Anonymous May 9, 2017

Wow!!!! Thank you! You explained so many things so clealrly. Like,' Why are the secrets of the Torah called secrets if we study them?' and ' Why is it essential to learn Chassidus, is one's service of Hashem really lacking without it? Reply

Anonymous AUD May 8, 2017

Divine Light So, if I see UV starbursts on chrome cars and glass windows, concentric circular rainbows around night street lights and even the moon, streams of sunlight lines in radiant precision on filtered sunlight through trees, all beautiful, I believe I have this light.... within my soul. Reply

Sara USA May 13, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

Wow--It does seem to appear that way, as those encounters are /can be so uplifting! Thank you for pointing this out! Reply

Chaya USA May 8, 2017

Toda Raba Rabbi Freeman. I have loved the Ba'al Shem Tov since I first read about him. You opened his words up in a new way for me that makes my life easier. Keep spreading your wonderful way of expressing things. You are making a bigger difference in peoples lives than you know. Shalom. Reply

ann canada May 9, 2017
in response to Chaya:

Chaya, you took the words out of my mouth. I so agree with you. Reply