A Flame from Heaven:*

God in the Details

Leviticus 9-10

5 And they brought that which Moses commanded before the tabernacle of the congregation: and all the congregation drew near and stood before the Lord.

6 And Moses said, This is the thing which the Lord commanded that ye should do: and the glory of the Lord shall appear unto you....

23 And Moses and Aaron went into the tabernacle of the congregation, and came out, and blessed the people: and the glory of the Lord appeared unto all the people.

24 And there came a fire out from before the Lord, and consumed upon the altar the burnt offering and the fat: which when all the people saw, they shouted, and fell on their faces.

1 And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took either of them his censer, and put fire therein, and put incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the Lord, which he commanded them not.

2 And there went out fire from the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord.

After the arduous work involved in the construction of the Tabernacle and its implements, Moses, Aharon and the Levites spent eight days preparing themselves for the consecration of the priesthood and the sanctuary. The process comes to its culmination in this week's reading, as the "Glory of the Lord" appears before the people in the guise of a flame from above that descended onto the altar.

As an experiment to be conducted at home (with responsible adult supervision, of course), you might try making a flame go downward. This is, of course, not the normal way in which flames burn; usually they burn upwards. This particular manifestation of divine glory was especially miraculous.

Several commentators, including some of the foremost Jewish philosophers, were uncomfortable with this image. It is not merely the violation of laws of physics that upet them (though, indeed, there are thinkers who believe that it reflects poorly on the Almighty when he suspends the rules of nature that he himself established). Some authors consider it inappropriate to depict the Creator of the cosmos, the Foundation of all existence, the Guide of all humanity and the Author of universal ethics--as channeling his concerns to specific targets. Philosophers have a predisposition towards generalization and universal truth, and are notoriously ill at ease when they encounter manifestations of divine particularism. The God of the philosophers is completely self-sufficient, and has no need to interact with capricious mortals.

But this is precisely the mystery that is represented in our biblical passage: The infinite deity, in defiance of all our godly expectations, has chosen to attach himself to the destiny of a particular nation in a particular geographical locality.

This perspective is distinctive to the Torah. Many other religious world-views regard the physical world as a prison for the soul, a burden that impedes our spirits from fulfilling their true vocations. For such people, the proper goal of the religious person should be to free oneself from physical shackles and elevate oneself to an existence that is completely spiritual.

The late Rabbi Joseph D. Soloveitchik, in his masterpiece Ish HaHalakhah (Halakhic Man) argued that in this respect, the spiritual ideal espoused by the Torah is diametrically opposed to that of conventional religion. Instead of urging us to seek God by escaping from the world, the Torah instructs us to bring holiness into the world through the performance of commandments. The immense variety of commandments provides us with a framework to relate to every imaginable aspect of our dealings with the world around us. When we shape our activities in conformity with the requirements of Jewish religious law, we can transform otherwise profane deeds into expressions of devotion. Sanctity will flow into the world--even as the heavenly flame descended upon the altar in the wilderness.

Perhaps this was the fatal and tragic error that was committed by Aaron's sons Nadab and Abihu. They were profoundly mystical personalities who believed that the human spirit should aspire heavenward, not God to the world. Only by negating the individuality of our personalities can we merge into the totality of the Absolute.

Rather than wait for the divine fire to come down to the Tabernacle, Nadab and Abihu kindled their incense from an earthly flame taken from the altar. This flame would flare upwards, in the proper manner, like a human spirit flickering to transcend the material body and become one with the universe.

So fundamental was their misunderstanding of their religious mission that they had to be tragically consumed--by a fire that swooped down from the heavens. Their deaths had to serve as a testimony to the fact that Israel does not worship an impersonal, universal deity. Ours is a God who is profoundly involved in the infinite particulars of his creation, a God who is concerned with individual persons and nations.

An extraordinary insight into this idea can be found in the Kedushat Levi commentary by the renowned Hasidic master Rabbi Levi Isaac of Berditshev.

Rabbi Levi Isaac poses the question: Of all the historical commemorations that fill the Jewish festival calendar, why is it only on Passover that a child ask the "four quesitons" requiring the adults to provide an explanation of the holiday's significance?

Rabbi Levi Isaac suggests that the child's questioning can be understood as more than a request for information. It should actually be classified among the symbolic actions that are designed to symbolically reenact the experiences of slavery and liberation; such as the eating of matzah or bitter herbs.

When learned adults are called upon to explain a weighty religious truth in terms that are understandable to a young child, they are in effect emulating what the Creator of the Universe himself did when he established boundaries, as it were, to his own infinity. The Almighty elected to manifest himself to a particular group of humans in a remote corner of the cosmos, and to package his infinite wisdom in a form that is accessible to a finite human intelligence.

The Kedushat Levi argues that Passover, in celebrating God's immersion into the details of human history, manifests a dimension of God that is as miraculous as the creation of the universe; and that it was for this reason that the Jewish sages designated both Rosh Hashanah (the traditional anniversary of the Creation) and the month of Nissan (in which Passover falls) as New Years festivals.

It seems to me that this same vital truth, of how God sends down his goodness into the finite world, lies at the foundation of the Torah's depiction of the consecration of the Tabernacle.

May we all participate in the task of sanctifying our earthly existence with the warmth, light and passion of the divine flame.

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My e-mail address is elsegal@ucalgary.ca

*Sermon delivered at Congregation House of Jacob - Mikveh Israel, April 6 2002.