Va’Etchanan: G-d’s Fire

Near the beginning of this Parsha, Hashem challenges us to understand the enormity of what we’ve experienced. He tells us, essentially, “Ask around – has anybody ever heard of a nation hearing the voice of G-d from the fire – and living?”

It is a very strange challenge because it is so qualified.

It seems other nations can certainly hear the voice of G-d and live. But not from amidst the fire. And in case we think this is a random one-off, the same idea is repeated at least three times in this Parsha. Again and again this reading tells us that we heard the voice from the fire and we lived.

What is so unique about this juxtaposition of fire and life?

One of the fundamental concepts of physics is the concept of entropy. Entropy tells us that things naturally tend towards disorder. Living systems, like us, can counteract entropy locally – but only at the cost of greater entropy beyond the area we are organizing. If you watch a video of a fire backward, you know it is backward: the smoke and ashes can’t just be reassembled into homes or cars.

Of course, one of the greatest actors of entropy is exactly this: fire. Organized material is turned into chaotic smoke and ash. Structure and order are lost. Fire consumes.

This is a normal concept of god – or gods. Gods are seen as inherently natural or scientific. Mother Gaia, the wind. The oak tree. This concept of a god-being shows up in nature – it is nature. In this conception, the fire of G-d is like any other fire – only more so.

We see that concept in this parsha.

כִּי יְקוָק אֱלֹקיךָ, אֵשׁ אֹכְלָה הוּא:  קֵל, קַנָּא.

24 For the LORD thy God is a devouring fire, a jealous God. {P}

This devouring G-d is the norm. But it isn’t the norm for us.

Right before this pasuk, the Torah tells us that the sun, moon and stars are allocated to other peoples. They are to experience the G-d of consuming fire. The natural G-d. It then warns us not to make graven images. If we worship the physical, then this physical – natural – G-d is the one we will experience.

This is the G-d of consuming fire.

The Scientific G-d.

But us?

We have another concept of G-d. For us, G-d is the opposite of entropy. Hashem takes a universe of chaos and creates order. Hashem alone has that power. It is beyond our world. It is Barah.

We are a people who forbid interest – because it is simply a financial reflection of entropy.

We can live in another reality. We have lived in another reality. A reality in which the power of entropy is denied.

As it says in this Parsha:

כִּי מִי כָל-בָּשָׂר אֲשֶׁר שָׁמַע קוֹל אֱלֹקִים חַיִּים מְדַבֵּר מִתּוֹךְ-הָאֵשׁ, כָּמֹנוּ–וַיֶּחִי.

22 For who is there of all flesh, that hath heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as we have, and lived?

We can live in another reality.

But how do we get there again? How do we live in the reality beyond science and physics and the rules of Nature?

Aside from the hammer blows of warning, this Torah portion gives us a beautiful, and subtle, idea of how to achieve this.

The pasuk I just quoted asked who among all flesh has heard the voice of Hashem from the fire and lived. The obvious answer is the Jewish people at Har Sinai.

But there is another answer.  Moshe. Moshe heard the voice of G-d from the sneh – the burning bush. And he lived.

In fact, he didn’t just hear the voice of G-d.

He was drawn to the bush

נָּא וְאֶרְאֶה, אֶת-הַמַּרְאֶה הַגָּדֹל הַזֶּה:  מַדּוּעַ, לֹא-יִבְעַר הַסְּנֶה

 ‘I will turn aside now, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.’

He saw it was great – and he had to understand. That is why Hashem selected him.

This Parsha is the first in which there is divine love. Our love of Hashem and Hashem’s love of us.

In the Chumash, love is a desire to draw close and in that moment, Moshe showed his love of Hashem. Because He loved Hashem, the Fire did not consume. The laws of nature and science were replaced with something new – the laws of divine Love.

Rosh Hashana is drawing close. We have just stepped beyond commemorating the price of hate. On this Shabbat, the Torah shows us a new path.

An alternative: the path of love. Love of G-d.

In this Torah reading, the people are on the knife edge of destruction and love. We are frightened of the fire of Hashem but we still want to hear His words. We cannot yet, quite, love G-d.

I believe this reality remains today – thousands of years later. We remain on the knife edge of love and destruction. But it is within our power – at any moment – to change this reality.

Today, we are the burning bush and the fire on the mountain. We have burned, but we have never been consumed. If we can embrace that, understand that, internalize what it means – and even be drawn to it then we can be as Moshe was on that day in the mountains.

 We can say to ourselves:

נָּא וְאֶרְאֶה, אֶת-הַמַּרְאֶה הַגָּדֹל הַזֶּה:  מַדּוּעַ, לֹא-יִבְעַר הַסְּנֶה

 ‘I will turn aside now, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.’

And with that, we can move the beyond the limits of nature, science and reality.

Shabbat Shalom

Joseph Cox

Notes:

Moshe struggles with the love of G-d. I believe that is one reason he is chosen. He pushes back. There is a theme in the Parsha of love earning a thousand years of kindness while hate is paid back face-to-face. I believe this reading has the idea of Moshe’s very limited shortcomings being paid back by keeping him on the other side of the Jordan. At the same time, his love of Hashem remains today.

Remarkably, Moshe interrupts his speech to designate three cities of refuge. This shows an emphasis on Moshe’s core desire – the protection of others. He wants this to be his legacy and the entire context of the speech is about delivering this for the people. Hashem only says to designate these cities after the people cross the Jordan – but Moshe has to do it beforehand.

The telling of the Aseret Hadibot lacks the chaos of the original. This is like the retelling of the writing of the American Constitution. It was chaotic, but we see order. Interestingly the parallels continue. Those who signed it are no longer signatories – instead people today are. Just as the Torah says those who came before are not part of this covenant. This is all part of the ‘nationalization’ of the Torah and the people.

  1. Susan Quinn says:

    I found this comment fascinating: “In this Torah reading, the people are on the knife edge of destruction and love. We are frightened of the fire of Hashem but we still want to hear His words. We cannot yet, quite, love G-d.

    I believe this reality remains today – thousands of years later. We remain on the knife edge of love and destruction. But it is within our power – at any moment – to change this reality.”
    My question would be why we can’t quite love G-d, and if it’s in our power to do so, how we make that happen?

    1. Joseph Cox says:

      It is hard because Hashem is scary. Nadav and Avihu highlight the challenges inherent in drawing close to G-d – and raising yourself into being a Creator in the process. The burning fire is far easier to see and appreciate – from Egypt to the Holocaust. To see beyond the consuming fire, that is the key. A lot of my exploration is about exactly that.

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