Playing With Fire: Shemini 2023

by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Pre-Game Chatter: When was the last time you saw something that startled you? Do you think you’ll be less startled if you see it again?

At the opening ceremonies for the portable sanctuary, the Israelites appear to be shocked at an unexpected sight:

The Pitch: “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 9:24

Swing #1: “Life in the desert was undoubtedly terrifying and astounding, filled with peaks of faith accompanied by expressions of wonder at the presence of God among his chosen (and choosing) congregation. But the peaks were invariably followed by depths of loss and failure. It took many years for the emotional pendulum to slow down and reach an equilibrium that allowed it to swing with the experiences of the believer and not the rages of God.” – Avraham Burg, Very Near To You: Human Readings of the Torah

Swing #2: “Anthropologists see the altar fire as a gateway to the other world through which offerings are transmitted to God and through which the power of God is directly manifested to man. The correctness of this observation is accentuated by a Priestly rule concerning the altar fire; it may never be allowed to die out. The reason is now apparent. Because the altar fire is of divine origin it must be perpetuated.” – Jacob Millgram, Leviticus 1-16

Swing #3: “We find that during various times in our history there have been twelve recorded occasions when fire descended from heaven (to accomplish a specific task). Six of these occasions were for the sake of accepting sacrificial offerings; the other six occasions were demonstrations of Divine displeasure and anger.” – Rabbeinu Bahya

Late-Inning Questions: According to our commentators, what do the Israelites think when they see the fire from God? Is their awe based more in appreciation or in fear? Do our fears motivate us as much as they impede us?

On-Deck at TBT: I’m excited to welcome my friend Rabbi Jeni S. Friedman, PhD, as this year’s Klein Weekend scholar. Please join us and support the program, taking place May 5th-7th, as we explore Global Jewish Peoplehood.

The Big Inning at the End: Speaking of fear as motivation, a recent documentary about the Seattle Mariners revealed that, as a child, Ken Griffey, Jr. was treated cruelly by Yankees manager Billy Martin when Griffey’s father played there. Junior swore to foil the Yankees when he reached the Major Leagues — which he famously did during a dramatic 1995 playoff series.

Shabbat Shalom!