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Vayakhel-Pekudei Sermon

This week’s Torah portion opens with the prohibition against lighting fire on Shabbat. The rabbis of course interpret this literally. They ruled that you cannot light a fire on Shabbat. You can light the fire before Shabbat. Hence there is the somewhat elaborate ritual of lighting Shabbat candles. Unlike almost all other rituals, in this case you perform the action before reciting the blessing. You light the candles, then cover your eyes, and then say the blessing. And then you open your eyes. Magically, it is as if the candles were lit. Had the blessing been said prior to the action, then you would be lighting the fire after Shabbat commences.

In addition candle lighting is set eighteen minutes prior to the start of Shabbat (and 36 minutes in Jerusalem) to avoid any errors and the chance that a fire might be kindled on this sacred day. Thus you can turn on lights before Shabbat and leave them on, but not during the day. You can warm food on a stove left on simmer but can’t cook on Shabbat. In addition you cannot drive because this would be igniting fire. Driving and the turning on of electric lights are all about this prohibition and not about forbidden work. It is not about the efforts of these actions but instead about the fires contained within them.

But fire can have symbolic meaning. Fire is after all the essence of the ner tamid and of the candles that mark the beginning of every holiday. They serve as a beacon, a reminder. Fire can also be dangerous; it can burn. I wonder if this is why it was prohibited. It can consume; it can destroy. Such powers are contrary to Shabbat; they are forbidden on this holiest of days.

The dual meaning of fire is part of its power. It echoes the Hebrew term for religious, yirat hashamayim. Literally this means fear of heaven. I prefer to translate this as standing before heaven, placing heaven at the forefront of our thoughts. I do not very much like the idea of fear. Then again perhaps fear is not that bad as a motivator.

We are sometimes motivated to do good out of fear. When your kids are young you don’t really care how the message is conveyed about running out into a busy street as long as it is heard. If you have to resort to fear then, ok. As long as your kids know they cannot run into a street, as long as they are protected from harm, in the end that’s all that matters. When your kids are older, again you just want that message about drinking and driving to be heard. You will take fear if it works. It would be nice if we could only say, “Don’t because I love you…” But it is rarely that easy.

Would it be so terrible if we were more generous, more caring, more compassionate simply because we were afraid of God’s wrath? I would take the generosity, concern and compassion. Do I care about the motivation? Or am I more concerned with the result?

I understand the discomfort. The rabbi now sounds like a conservative, right wing Christian. But for centuries Judaism has spoken and taught about the actions, the behaviors, rather than the motivation. In a word Judaism has said I will take any motivation that works as long as more people do the right thing. Is generosity tainted because it is done out of fear of heaven? Does the recipient of tzedakah, the needy person, really care about the giver’s motivation or instead the content of the gift? If you need a coat during the harshness of yesteryear’s winters do you really care why you got that coat? All that matters is your warmth.

Back to the fires. That is why fire is an apt image. Its duality gives us insight into our religious motivations. It can light the way; it can warm. It can also consume; it can burn.
Likewise yirah can also mean awe, to hold up in reverence. Yirah contains a dual meaning. Sometimes we do the right thing out of fear. Better to do it out reverence. Regardless the best is just to do the right thing.

Abraham Joshua Heschel writes:
The meaning of awe is to realize that life takes place under wide horizons, horizons that range beyond the span of an individual life or even the life of a nation, a generation, or an era. Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal.
Our lives are filled with small acts. They can be as small as lighting Shabbat candles or giving tzedakah, or as small as beholding the ner tamid or reaching out to feed the hungry. In each of these we glimmer the divine. In the smallest of acts we see the light of God’s concern. It can start with kindling the Shabbat lights. It can begin with the eternal light of last week’s portion.

Regardless of where it begins the goal remains the same. It is to bring light and warmth to the world. It is to be sure that the fires of religious faith do not consume ourselves or others. It is to be certain that these fires only brighten our path.

We have a world to repair. It matters less the motivation and far more the result. There are too many people to help to argue about fear or awe. I prefer awe. Others prefer fear. Perhaps together we can better our world.