Yaakov Shwekey recorded a song recently about fire – Tadlik et ha’aish!
Light the fire is the recurring lyric, exhorting Jews to find their inner soul and access their true spirituality. We don’t need to go to the Far East to find true ruchniyus, Shwekey sings.
We just concluded Chanukah where lighting fire plays a very prominent role. And, of course, we light candles every week for Shabbos. Besides for heat and light there is a deeper understanding of fire we need to discover.
The haftarah (37:15-28) describes Yechezkel HaNavi seeing a vision of Messianic times when the kingdoms of Yehudah and Yosef will unite. Just as we find in the story of Parshas VaYigash, where Yosef reunites with the rest of the tribes, Yechezkel describes a world in which our long banishment from Eretz Yisrael is over because the animosity and discord in Klal Yisrael will have passed.
A dear friend of mine, a superb talmid chacham, and rav of The White Shul in Far Rockaway, Rabbi Eytan Feiner, explains that fire itself is a unifier and advocate of peace. Homogeneous in its core nature, fire is the only substance that automatically transforms whatever is placed within it to that which it itself is – whatever is thrown into fire soon becomes fire as well. What better representation, therefore, of sheer unity? Anything thrown into a flame will soon become an intrinsic part of the fire itself.
This clarifies why Hashem expresses the hope that His people continue learning Torah even after sinking to the lowest spiritual levels, for the “ohr she’bo machziro li’mutav” – the light (fire) contained therein will return them to the righteous path. One who throws himself into the study of Torah will surely become absorbed by the Torah’s light and influence, which will, ultimately, transform him into a true Torah-filled being. Until it reaches a dangerous level, the inherent warmth of a calm fire lures a person to bask in its proximity – it naturally pulls one closer.
There are more symbols of unity in fire. The tip of the flame is white, the color that encompasses all the diverse colors of the spectrum and can thus be referred to as their unifier. The Menorah in the Temple, the vessel which contained the fiery lights, was to be made “b’miksha achas,” carved to form one solid piece, again highlighting the notion of unification and harmony. All the neiros of the Menorah were to face the ner ha’maaravi, indicative perhaps of the same motif – all the flames together stood for shalom, peace and harmony.
Shalom, of course, can only be properly achieved through krova, establishing a strong sense of closeness with another. The overt chibbur, connection with G-d that was witnessed daily in the Heichal, was specifically through the medium of fire. When the sacrifices were being consumed on the altar, a miraculous fire descended from the heavens and joined together with the man-made fire already burning. Hence, it was through the conduit of fire that the Jewish people witnessed their close attachment to G-d above. This naturally explains why the word for a sacrifice on the altar is a korban, alluding to the fact that it serves as a vehicle through which krova to Hashem is attained. This closeness will be manifest to all when the korban’s fire on the altar becomes wondrously united with the heavenly one.
Because fire itself is the best representation of the ultimate unifier, fusing everything into its own natural composition and leaving us with only a larger flame, G-d thus chooses it as the means by which to illustrate that our sacrifices enable us to connect and fuse with His eternal Being. The greatest prophet ever, in fact, first connects to G-d as He reveals Himself through the conduit of a burning bush and, at Har Sinai, we read: “All of Har Sinai was smoking because G-d had descended upon it in the fire” (Yisro, 19:18). G-d establishes His firmest bonds through the means of His creation called fire, using the symbol of unifying power to highlight the impregnable ties between Him and His chosen people. The Torah was thus given specifically in a fire-filled surrounding. Hence, those who subsequently unite themselves entirely with G-d through His Torah can merit a display of fire intended to accent His closeness to them, as witnessed, for example, in the case of the renowned Tanna, Yonason ben Uziel, who, according to the Gemara, had fire above his head when he studied Torah.
There is a common custom mentioned by the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch and other seforim to give tzedakah before lighting Shabbos candles. Some people even keep a pushka near the candles. What’s the connection between the mitzvos of lighting candles for Shabbos and giving charity?
Rav Abraham Twerski in his new book, The Shabbos Companion points out that Shabbos lights are supposed to bring peace into the home (Shabbos 25b). Beyond the simple matter of providing light so that people don’t trip on each other, light itself is a symbol of peace. When you light a candle for yourself, others can benefit from it without taking anything away from you. [Similarly, one solitary candle can lean down and offer its light to numerous other candles without losing any of its own light.]
Furthermore, says Rabbi Twerski, the custom of lighting one candle for each member of the household fosters the concept that each person adds light and meaning to the family. Simply by existing, each person knows that he is responsible for bringing one more light to the world, one more Shabbos candle. All of these characteristics of the candles promote unity and shalom in the home.
Shabbos itself is identified with shalom. Kitzur Shelah says that this is the rationale behind a custom to say Zachor Es Yom HaShabbos Lekadsho when kissing the mezuzah (instead of the weekday custom to say ‘Hashem Yishmor tzescha u’voeacha me’atah v’ad olam) because the mitzvah of shemiras Shabbos protects Klal Yisrael. For the same reason, we replace the ending of the bracha in Maariv, “shomer amo Yisrael la’ad” (Hashem protects His nation of Yisrael) with “ufros aleinu sukkas shalom” (You should spread Your canopy of peace upon us). Shabbos itself protects us and brings peace; we don’t have to specially request it.
If all this is true, if the candles and the fire represent unity and peace with others, if Shabbos itself possesses the identity of shalom, perhaps we understand why there is a custom to give charity prior to lighting candles. We are trying to bond with all Jews when we light, and we show concern for those who are in need. This meaningfully connects with the achdus concept displayed by the Shabbos candles.
May Yechezkel’s prophecy be seen in the near future, and may we all light the fire together!