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Rosh Hashana 5772

Rosh Hashana – 5772 “The Fire Within” September  29, 2011

The year was 1965. Our family lived in Englewood, New Jersey in a house that was a local legend, known as the pink castle. Sitting on 3½ acres of land, it looked just like a castle.  It had 5 floors and 32 rooms, a terrifying basement, a kitchen with two pantries.  It had turrets on the outside.  Turrets!  My father and mother fell head over heels for it.  And I’m told that they went broke every day we lived there.

There was one room that was so big and imposing it had a 12 foot ceiling, hardwood floors, a crystal chandelier with matching wall sconces and a ten foot floor-to-ceiling mirror. We made that the piano room.  It contained…a piano.  That was it.

My father and mother were probably insane to buy this house. My Dad’s dad told him as much.  But it was something else, I’ll tell you.

That year, one of my father’s business friends, Dana Hill, came for a weekend visit. Mr. Hill was impressed by the sheer number of fireplaces and walked around the house taking it all in. That night, after bedtime, I got up and wandered around the first floor and ran into Mr. Hill.

“Do you smell that?” he asked. I shook my head. “Smells like smoke.” I told him I didn’t smell anything, but something seemed to be coming up from the floorboards. He nodded grimly and said, “That’s it!  Smoke!  Go wake everyone right now!  I’ll call the fire department.”

Within minutes firefighters stormed our house.  They tore from room to room with their axes in search of a blaze.              For several minutes they couldn’t find it.    By this time we were all awake and more than a little scared.              Finally, they pinned it down – it was behind one of the many fireplaces on the first floor, completely hidden from view.

The lead firefighter said to my Dad, “It is a good thing we came when we did.  Much later and the whole house might have gone up in flames with all of you in it! Who discovered it?”  My dad pointed to Mr. Hill, who said,  “After we saw the smoke, I knew there had to be a  fire somewhere.”

Fire. Blazing, hot fire. I can’t think of many things more terrifying. Just ask our fellow Americans who live in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona or California this past summer. And this fire was hidden, unseen by any of us.

Fire plays an unseen, hardly noticed role in our Torah portion today. After dismissing his servants, the Torah says Abraham “…took up the fire and the sacrificial knife.” We understand how he carried the knife. But the fire? How precisely does one carry  fire?

The translators struggle with this problem. One declares the Hebrew word for “fire,” “eish,” means a “flintstone,” to create sparks that can be blown into embers for a fire.

Another translator declares that the fire was actually a pot of live coals.

But most translations simply say that Abraham carried the “fire” in his hand without any explanation. Eerie. Unreal.

The great Chasidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, is the only Jewish thinker who notices this strangeness.    He considers the fire, only to dismiss it outright.  To him, the only thing that mattered was knife. Because, he says, if Abraham really had slaughtered his son, anything that happened after would be irrelevant.

After killing his own son, his future, his legacy, how in the world would Abraham have committed his son’s body to the fire? What would it matter? And, if it didn’t matter, why bother carrying the fire?

All commentators agree – with Isaac dead, so was the covenant. If Abraham does the deed, there is no Jewish history – no Exodus, no receiving Torah at Sinai, no saying the Sh’ma, no Rosh Hashana.  No shofar, no services today!           Placing Isaac’s body on the fire would just add insult to injury.

Now, my teachers always insisted we look beyond the literal meaning of the text.

So we ask, what if this image of the fire was never intended to be taken literally, even as God never really intended for Isaac’s death? Maybe, just maybe, the Torah is referring to a spiritual fire, the fire Abraham carried not in his hand, but in himself. This spiritual fire moved him to extraordinary deeds, like splitting the wood at age 100, traveling three days without rest, climbing Mt. Moriah and still finding the strength to bind his son on the altar and lift the knife!

And it is also the fire Abraham carries within that allows him  to hear the angel’s voice  to stay his hand.

In Chasidism, this spiritual fire has a special name. It is called “Hit-la-ha-vut,” from the Hebrew word for flame, “la-hav.” We Jews believe that every single one of us has a flame inside, a Divine spark that motivates us to be our best, to act by our highest values, to connect us beyond ourselves, to each other and to God.

Often, we are not aware of our inner flame. Our lives often center on the mundane, the ordinary, nothing more serious than deciding where to go for lunch or dinner. Without awareness of our inner flame, we go through the motions of work, even of play.  For most of us our inner fire rises up only when life becomes challenging or sad or terrifying.

For someone we know and love, it was a diagnosis of cancer that made for this awareness. Our dear Avigail Ende, Rabbi Ende’s wife, after returning home to Israel, was told she had an aggressive form of breast cancer.  It came out of nowhere.  It was treatable, but still life threatening. She was not even 40 when she was diagnosed.

But Avigail marshaled her inner flame until it was white hot. That was how she was able to endure the mastectomy, the aggressive chemo and finally the radiation. So far it has worked. She will survive. She is strong and has a husband and four children to live for.                            Her eldest, Avshalom, Israel’s greatest Steelers fan, is celebrating his Bar Mitzvah this December.

From what Rabbi Ende has told me, it is not just medical treatment that sustained her, but also her family and children, her friends all over Israel, and you and me as well. Our love and caring over the distance of oceans helped feed the flames of her desire to live. She told me this on the phone just three days ago and she thanked us for our many Mi She-bei-rach prayers on  her  behalf which  she felt 6, 000 miles away.

Her spiritual fire, her hit-la-ha-vut, rose to combat this mortal threat for now.      I am so happy for her and I can’t wait to see that living flame in her eyes Avigail when we take our  group from Temple Sinai to Israel in two months.

How many here have been diagnosed with cancer? Don’t raise your hands. Just think – how did it change your life, your horizons, your perspective?  Did it relight your  inner fire into a fierce will to live?

Now, I would never wish the challenges of cancer on anyone. At the same time, many of you have told me that cancer, or lupus, or colitis, or some other dangerous condition, ignited your spiritual flame and forced you to re-prioritize, to triage what really mattered and let go what was merely to fulfill the expectations of others.

Most every cancer survivor asks her or himself, “What is the meaning of my life, which  just might not last as long as I  had expected or hoped?”  Asking this question opens our spirit   to hit-la-ha-vut, to be enflamed, to move us to strength, intention and purpose that can not     only carry us through crisis but on to the rest of our lives.

Once you ask, “what is the meaning of my life?” you cannot avoid the world of the      spirit, of faith and meaning.   This place, here, our spiritual home, should be the place where    you ask these hard questions and heard with caring and empathy.   We don’t guarantee the    right answers.  All we promise is that you will not be alone in your soul search.  I believe    spiritual loneliness douses our inner fire in despair, almost as much as a bad diagnosis. Here at Temple we exchange our fear for a fire that even cancer cannot extinguish.

For one man I know (I’ll call him Jack) the flame leapt up after being let go from his job.

The company he served for more than 20 years was going through cost-cutting and he was one of the costs they cut.  Though his performance reviews were outstanding, he was deemed expendable. In his mid-fifties, there was very little chance he would ever get a similar paying job.

The news devastated him. His fire shriveled as he stopped even trying, sometimes not getting up until noon.  Finally, his flame lit up - to battle his employer.   He threatened them  with an age discrimination suit and the lawyers went at it, hammer and tong. His anger fed a fierce inner fire to be compensated for his wrongful firing.  And he won a large settlement!

But afterwards he still didn’t feel satisfied, just relieved that his family wouldn’t be poor.  He kept wondering – is there more for me to do in this lifetime?  And he realized that he was nowhere near done offering his gifts. That was when his spiritual fire rose once again, this time not in anger, but seeking purpose.

He got on the phone with all of his contacts and friends in his business. That too, proved unsuccessful. There were no obvious opportunities in his field. But having a hot flame inside gets you up a little earlier, makes you dig a little deeper, forces you to focus that inner fire.

And so, after months, he found himself working again in a large firm, though in a less important position than before. And yes, he took a pay cut. But because he now had less responsibility, he could spend less time at work, more time on what mattered to him, which happened to be coaching Little League. His inner fire burned  brightest every  time his right fielder actually caught a fly ball or simply sat down to dinner with his kids.  His fire was   warmer than he ever remembered, not ablaze with ambition, but with knowing how much he meant to his family and  his team.

For one woman I knew back in Wisconsin (Laura is NOT her real name) the disintegration of her family almost snuffed any spark of spirit. She had enjoyed a seemingly a storybook family for years. Now,  all of a sudden, with her kids grown, there was tension, anger and hurt that could not be suppressed anymore.

It was all the more shocking for having so few troubles raising her kids. They took to school like ducks to water.  They thrived and achieved.  They received graduate degrees.

They got married.   And then all hell broke  loose.

Suddenly there were fights over family money, over who came to which home for which holiday. There were threats to withhold contact with grandkids, complaints from decades ago hurled viciously in her face.

At first, she blamed herself. How could she have let things get so far out of hand?  Why hadn’t she seen her children’s unhappiness over  all these years?  Shouldn’t she have been wise enough to sit with her kids, now adults, and listen to them, even if they spewed venom  she could  not fathom?

And finally, in a flash of inner fire, she realized that she could not bear all of their   sorrows and anger.  She decided that, in the end, she could not be responsible for her   children’s lives, their happiness and well being.   She could be a cheerleader, a counselor, offer   a sage ear and a wise heart. That was all. That insight sparked her embers back to life.  She  tried out a new plan.

She changed how she responded to her kids when they verbally assaulted her. She actually empathized with them  She realized that showing hurt actually emboldened them to say more outrageous things against her.  So she simply listened.  She nodded.  She didn’t offer any particular response, neither anger nor advice. And it surprised everyone that her children’s anger simply melted over time.  It seems there was no point in getting so angry at a parent who didn’t respond according to the script.                                     By tending to her own fire, Laura learned to love her children again. For sometimes there has to be space between us for the oxygen of affection to reignite.

I remember when I was 30 going to my own mother, who was then 57, and unloading   all of my unhappiness over how she and my father had raised the five of us. I recited chapter  and verse and simply let it all out.   My mother stood in the kitchen, looking at her adult child    as if he had grown horns.  But after my tirade, she looked at me with the tiniest hint of  sympathy and said, “That must have been rough for you.”   And she walked out of the room.   My anger died in that moment, extinguished by a 57 year old woman in one sentence.

Now that I am 57, I can only think, “Oh, to be that wise!” To tend one’s own flame, to refuse to let that flame be extinguished by others, especially those we love, is a rare gift.

And what about the 30-something (we’ll call her Rachel) who has “failed to launch,” not finding a path in life to ascend any  mountain at all?   Drifting, undirected, scared of the world   and unmotivated – these descriptions were never meant to apply to our children, the children     of Baby Boomer over-achievers.   Rachel got her degree from  the University of Maryland, like    so  many  other  Pittsburgh  kids.   She applied  for  jobs all over  the country, but she was always 4th or 5th on the list, never first.  Saddled with college loans, she applied for internships in her   field of design that barely paid a nickel.  She didn’t get any of those either.  Her spirit felt  crushed, barely an ember left of her inner fire.

And Rachel is not alone. Maybe you know someone like her. Some of our younger adults are angry, frustrated by a promise of success that seems illusory, given the ongoing recession and lack of opportunity.                      When you can’t even get an unpaid internship, what hope should you have?    How can you relight your fire when the only thing that gives you any satisfaction is playing “Angry Birds” and sharing your score on Facebook?

I worry about Rachel and her friends. In my generation, we often forget that many of our parents were the first to go to college, to aspire to a profession or a high paying job. And now we simply expect that our children will not only follow our path, but that they will surpass us!  A path barely two generations old!  Our worry and expectation can throw cold water on the loftiest of young persons’ dreams and douse the hottest of their inner flames.

Maybe we need to change our expectations. Maybe this generation’s fire needs to be stoked differently. I know a young person, Danny, who, from age 22 to 32, challenged every convention of his life, from getting a college degree to finding a career.

He came to me to speak about his life and his defiant choices. He was proud and unhappy, all at the same time.  He was glad he didn’t simply become another “suit,” but he was eking out a paltry existence, working two jobs as a waiter and a barrista at a coffee shop.

He looked at me with such pain in his eyes, and finally asked, “If I am doing what I want, why am I so unhappy?”  He braced himself, a surly look on his face, expecting me to give the company  line  about  faith  and  Jewish  practice  helping  him  make better choices.       Instead, I asked the obvious question, “ARE you doing precisely what you want?”

He thought about it a long time. And finally, with a fierceness I did not expect, he said,  “No, I  am not!”   I  asked the next obvious question – what do you want to  do?

Without a moment’s hesitation Danny said, “I don’t know, but I  am sure as heck going    to find out!” And he left my office without another word. I saw his inner fire blaze up in that moment.   I  swear it rose to the tips of his ears!

A couple months later I  heard that he was working only one job, managing the coffee  shop where he had started  as a barrista.  He e-mailed  me that he liked  the coffee shop  life a  lot, so much so that he wanted to own one!   He was going to do whatever it took to reach       that goal, even if it took years. I wish him well!  And  I  am  thrilled  that his hit-la-ha-vut, his  inner flame has been stoked so high!   It just took him a while to find his “lighter” to give him    the spark he needed.   I  haven’t spoken to him in a while – I  hope he is climbing his mountain   of  coffee beans!

And our inner flames this New Year? What sparks us this day, we who have not been fired, who do not face cancer, whose families are relatively loving, who are more or less secure?

Is our inner flame high or a flickering ember? Is your hit-la-ha-vut tamped down by the burdens of your life, heavy responsibilities and strained family ties? Or maybe you are suffocating in the same old, same old that stopped feeding your fire a long time ago?

In this next, new year, how will you carry your fire, how will you keep it from dying out?

I  have an idea.   Take the sparks of your flame and link them to  someone else’s.

Preferably someone who needs your gifts of spirit, your hands, your heart, your neshama, your soul.  Your fire.

You may know the story of the man who separates himself from his friends, whose Rabbi goes to his house and lifts one coal from the fireplace, watching it quickly turn cold by itself. We need each others’ sparks, embers, fires and flames to respond to the challenges we face today, personal, family and communal ones. Without our inner fire, as Abraham learned, there is no Torah, no covenant, no community, no justice. We are as dead inside as Isaac on the altar, had the knife but traveled but one more inch.

Will you settle for that? How can you settle for spiritual death, knowing that you, God willing, have years to live? Without your fire, to listen and guide your hand, you might let the knife fall on someone you love!    Please say no!  Please.  Say.  No!

After the ram had been substituted for Isaac on the altar, the servants, waiting far below, saw the flames leaping high on top of the mountain.  When they saw Abraham   returning alone from the summit, they realized their worst fears – the old man had gone and done it, he had offered up Isaac in a bizarre act they could not comprehend.

When Abraham drew near, one of them stammered, “What happened up there, sire?

Everything okay?”  Abraham nodded and just stood there,  the fire in his eyes.

“But, master, where is Isaac  …?” the other one asked.   Abraham  answered, “He is fine.

We built the fire together and made our offering to God. Now, he has gone his own way, which is as it should be,” Abraham said. There was still a fire in Abraham’s eyes. No doubt in Isaac’s, too.

Even though walking with each other, they climbed alone, alienated from each other by fear of what lay ahead. But in the end, they built the fire together, a fire that has lit up our people for more than 3,000 years, a fire that still burns for you and me this day!

Isaac and Abraham’s flame, Sara and Rebekah’s as well, all live on in us. I believe this with all of my heart.  It is the flame of renewal and rebirth, of purpose and passion, a fire we carry up every mountain in our lives. This Rosh Hashana, more than ever, we simply need to note it, nurture it and let it push us up our mountain and beyond.

We share each others’ flames to light a eternal torch for us all, a spiritual fire bright enough to light up a world drowning in darkness and despair!  This is our destiny, if we   choose, to be children of light, hope and fire, come what may. Light, hope and fire! Fire for  you!  Fire for me!  Fire for all God’s children!  Fire for all God’s children!

Sun, October 1 2023 16 Tishrei 5784