After dinner last night, we made the havdalah blessings over wine and spices. We lit and extinguished the braided candle as we heard the water ripple, the crickets chirp, and the manatees and dolphins breathe. Then we assembled sticks, pine needles and palm fronds to make a small, intimate fire to keep us warm through the evening.
We sat around the campfire for two hours, sometimes chatting, sometimes putting more wood on the fire, and often just sitting in silence. To me, it seemed like a precious moment — a group of teenagers with no cellphones or laptops to stare at, no lessons or sport practices to run off to, nothing better to do than just stare into the red, orange, yellow and blue flames of our modest fire.
There is something captivating and intoxicating about a fire. Staring at it, feeling its warmth, feeding it and tending it, lulls us into quiet appreciation. We are fascinated by the way fire transforms things. It turns scraps of wood into energy. It dances and breathes and shines out where there was darkness. Fire also has that hint of danger to it. Fire reminds us of our physical vulnerabilities and the way that, if we are not careful, we can be consumed by forces beyond our control.
We watch a fire and feel that we are, somehow, a bit closer to the eternal source of creation and change in the universe — a power that can seem, sometimes, to overwhelm us. Watching a fire, we are transfixed by a world that is always, right before our eyes, becoming something new.
In this week's Torah portion, Tzav, we read about how the ancent Israelites kept a fire burning before the Temple: "A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out" (Leviticus 6:6). The Israelites burned offerings on that fire to express their gratitude for their blessings, to find forgiveness of their faults, and to come close to their God.
Nowadays, when we talk about the sacrifices described in the book of Leviticus, we often say things like, "These ancient practices seem very strange to us," or we talk about how we are lucky that we now worship God with words, not with burning animal carcasses on an altar. But I think the old, abandoned practices of the Temple and its sacred fire are not as strange to as we like to say they are. They are not so irrelevant.
We, too, stare into the fire of the Shabbat candles, the havdalah flame, or just a friendly campfire on a cool Florida night, and we discover a bit of eternity in the sparks and the shifting, living light. We are fascinated by it and we are reminded of our fragility in a universe filled with wonder and change.
Today, as we get back into our kayaks, we will feel the swells and currents of the lagoon's waters under us — another reminder of transforming power that is not fully under our control. We will paddle our way back to the mainland and back to the usual rhythms of our lives. We will carry with us, though, some memories of a Shabbat spent looking into the light, feeling ourselves warmed by sacred flames, peering out of the darkness into the transforming fire of eternity.
Other Posts on This Topic:
And After the Fire — a Still, Small Voice
Tzav: Find the Sacred in Every Little Thing