This design is based on a D'var Torah given a few years ago at B'nai Jeshurun, New York City, by Rabbi J. Rolando Matalon on Shabbat Beha'alotekha. I cannot begin to do justice to his words, but will attempt a summary. This is what I learned:
Fire, a central element of the experience of revelation at Sinai, consumes and destabilizes, yet also melts, re-forms, and illuminates. Fire, like an encounter with God, can also be so intense that it's unsustainable in our lives for any length of time.
Yet we yearn for the continuing presence of God. How can the intensity of revelation be contained and perpetuated? It's a tricky balance; too much, and we burn out. Too little, and passion is extinguished by boredom and routine.
The portable mishkan (tabernacle) described in the parasha helped address this problem by allowing the Israelites to meet God in a smaller, more restricted way than at Sinai. The seven-branched menorah in the mishkan served a similar purpose, capturing just a small bit of that transforming fire.
In Midrash Tanhuma we learn that Moshe had trouble following God's detailed instructions about how to construct the mishkan and menorah. So God, using a palette of white, red, black, and green fire, engraved the instructions on Moshe's hand like a tattoo. Moshe shared this blueprint with his brother Aaron, who made the menorah and lit it each day according to a strict schedule. He tamed the fire, in effect, transforming it into a regular, routinized experience.
So the fire became a habit, the complete opposite of its initial role as an expression of passion. But we're told that Aaron approached his daily task as if each time were the first, his kavannah (intention) never wavering. We face this same challenge today. How can we balance the routine of tradition with the excitement of new approaches to prayer, learning, politics, peace? How can we embrace and integrate both ends of the spectrum?
As I thought more and more about these questions, I kept coming back to that strange tattoo of colored fire. Moshe was branded, a permanent, visible reminder from God. It's a reminder to us, as well, to continue searching for balance in all aspects of our lives as well as for the passion to learn, grow, repair the world, and be joyful.
Texts and Translations:
• Zechariah 4:1-7, from the haftarah for Shabbat Be'haaloteka and Hanukkah.
1 The angel who talked with me came back and woke me as a man is wakened from sleep.
2 He said to me, "What do you see?" And I answered, "I see a lampstand all of gold, with a bowl above it. The lamps on it are seven in number, and the lamps above it have seven pipes;
3 and by it are two olive trees, one on the right of the bowl and one on its left."
4 I, in turn, asked the angel who talked with me, "What do those things mean, my lord?"
5 "Do you not know what those things mean?" asked the angel who talked with me; and I said, "No, my lord."
6 Then he exmplained to me as follows: "This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit — said the LORD of hosts.
7 Whoever you are, O great mountain in the path of Zerubbabel, turn into level ground! For he shall produce that excellent stone; it shall be greeted with shouts of 'Beautiful! Beautiful!'"
• Shir Hashirim Rabbah 1:53, from a teaching by Rabbi Michele Dardashti at B'nai Jeshurun on Shavuot evening, 2011.
Ben Azzai was sitting and interpreting and fire was all around him. They told Rabbi Akiva … Akiva asked him: Perhaps you are engaging in the inner rooms of the chariot? [Ben Azzai] replied: No, I was sitting and stringing the words of Torah and the words of Torah to the Prophets and the Prophets to the Writings. And the word [of Torah] were as joyful as on the day they were given from Sinai. Were they not originally given in fire? As it is written: " And the mountain was burning with fire" (Deut. 4:11).
A short excerpt of both these texts is included on the English version of the print.
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