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Fire and Light; Fear and Awe

The Torah declares: “You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the sabbath day.” (Exodus 35) And the tradition constructs a myriad of laws so that one does not even inadvertently light a fire. Electric lights cannot be turned on or off. The stove is kept at a simmer. Driving cars is not allowed. The lighting of Shabbat candles is performed eighteen minutes before sunset and the kindling of the havdalah candle well after it becomes dark on Saturday evening.

And while I am not observant of these prohibitions and drive and cook and turn the lights on and off (if one counts telling Google to do this for me) and even light Friday evening’s candles when our family is together rather than at the exact appointed minute, I understand the Torah’s intention of prohibiting kindling fires.

Fire can be dangerous; it can burn. This is the essence of why it was prohibited. It can consume; it can destroy. Such powers are contrary to Shabbat; they are forbidden on this holiest of days.

Then again, the lighting of candles marks the beginning of every holiday. We kindle yahrtzeit lights to remember those we mourn. These candles serve as beacons, reminders of our loved ones and the sanctity of the holiday.

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 lean into feelings of awe rather than those of fear.

The great Jewish philosopher, 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.
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 contains a dual meaning. It can mean awe, to hold up in reverence and yet, at other times it suggests fear. Sometimes we do the right thing out of fear. And other times we do the right thing out of feelings of reverence and awe. It is best to do the right thing, regardless of the motivation.

Our lives are filled with small acts. They can be as small as lighting Shabbat candles or giving tzedakah. They can seem as ordinary as beholding the yahrtzeit flame illuminating the darkness of our kitchen (or our heart) or as simple, yet profound as reaching out to feed the hungry. In each of these we see 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 looking at the power of these flames.