Across and Afire

A truth substantiated by an illustration [Mashal]:

Compare an individual who was crossing [oveir]
from place to place [mi-makom li-makom]
and conceived/understood/saw [v’raah]
a structure/castle/fort [birah]
— one structure, or perhaps something singular or unique [achat] —
afire or aglow [doleket]…
— from Breishit Rabbah 39

A lot is happening in these few phrases, from the crossing to the fire. In previous encounters with this story, I’ve failed to notice a great deal; this year, I see in this tale a new framework to hold some painful realities. “Mashal” is usually rendered as “fable” or “allegory,” but Jastrow’s Dictionary also offers “truth substantiated by an illustration,” which seems more apt for how this tale is working for me this year….some of which I attempt to share here.

The illustration continues, with a single question and answer between the place-crosser and the “master” of the structure afire. We’re then told that this is just like Abraham asking the same question about the universe itself — “Is there no one in charge here?” — and God responding “yeah, it’s me.” The whole comparison is presented as an explanation for why God told Abraham to go forth at the start of the portion, Lekh-Lekha (Gen 12.). And Rabbi Yitzchak’s entire teaching here is related to an image from the psalms:

Take heed, lass, and note,
incline your ear:
forget your people and your father’s house,

and let the king be aroused by your beauty;
since he is your lord, bow to him.
— Psalm 45:11-12

Read more of this midrash below; find the whole in English and/or Hebrew at Sefaria.)

Across — עבר

אָמַר רַבִּי יִצְחָק מָשָׁל לְאֶחָד שֶׁהָיָה עוֹבֵר מִמָּקוֹם לְמָקוֹם, וְרָאָה בִּירָה אַחַת דּוֹלֶקֶת

The individual in this short tale might have been introduced as traveling or journeying…or just going. Instead, the verb is oveir, the same verb used in Gen 12:6 (“And Abram passed through the land…”). There, says Umberto Cassuto (1883-1951), “an allusion can be found to the name of Abram the Hebrew” (Cassuto: From Noah to Abraham, p.323). The appellation “ha-ivri ” used for Abraham (Gen 14:13), has the same root letters as the verb for crossing…. as does the name “Eber” (more on Eber and Shem, ancestors of Abraham and Sarah).

A great deal has been written about Abraham and Sarah as boundary-crossers. And we talked about this in Torah discussion at Tzedek Chicago. In this short tale, though, we start out with this unnamed individual crossing from place to place, and it’s in the crossing that they perceive a structure on fire.

BTW: Tzedek Chicago Torah discussion is online. All welcome, 9:30 a.m. CT on Shabbat mornings (pre-register for Zoom link). No Hebrew knowledge or prior background assumed, although Tzedek’s values inform discussion.

Afire — דלק

Tzedek Chicago Torah discussion tossed around a number of ideas regarding God and this burning structure:

  • Our world on metaphorical fire;
  • Climate change and a world quite literally burning up;
  • God communicating via fire (e.g., “The Torah was written in black fire on white fire” — Devarim Rabbah 3:13); and
  • God using fire to get the attention of someone(s) — including a reference to the Burning Bush story (Exodus 3), which is often compared to this one.

We also wondered if the fire was set — by God? by humans? — or an unintentional side effect of another action or process. And who has the power to end it: Is God choosing to leave it in human hands? Somehow unable to put it out without human help? Or maybe just waiting until someone, like Abraham, notices? Somewhere in the discussion arose the idea of God as arsonist attempting to get humanity’s attention.

אָמַר רַבִּי יִצְחָק מָשָׁל לְאֶחָד שֶׁהָיָה עוֹבֵר מִמָּקוֹם לְמָקוֹם, וְרָאָה בִּירָה אַחַת דּוֹלֶקֶת

The root dalet-lamed-kaf — “doleket” in the story above — can carry the meaning of “to burn” or “to kindle” in a physical sense:

  • Ezekiel’s vision in Chapter 24 is pretty wild, but the words expressing it are straightforward: “…heaping on the wood, kindling [hadleik] the fire… (Ezek 24:10).
  • A common blessing says, “…l’hadlik ner shel [to kindle the lights of] Shabbat” (or Yom Tov, Hanukah).
  • In Deut 28:22, people will be punished “with fever [vadaleket].”
  • In Aramaic, as in modern Hebrew, “delek” is fuel.

In some Bible verses, dalet-lamed-kaf also carries a more emotional or psychological meaning:

  • Isaiah says woe to someone “inflamed [yidlikim] by wine.”
  • We find “ardent [dolkim] lips” in Prov 26:23.
  • Jacob was incensed [d’lakta] with Laban in Gen 31:26.
  • A meaning of “pursue eagerly” is found in Lam 4:19, 1 Sam 17:53, Ps. 10:2, and in Ps. 7:14 (King James Version) where we have “arrows against persecutors [l’dolkim].” For the latter, JPS has “sharp” arrows with one of those “Hebrew uncertain” notes, while the New Int’l Version has “flaming” and other Christian translations use “with fiery shafts.”
  • Finally, there are images in Obadiah 18 and Daniel 7:9 which seem to carry a physical meaning of flames plus a sense of burning in anger.

Jastrow’s Dictionary also includes the “light” or “illumination” aspect of fire in defining dalet-lamed-kaf. The entry, in fact, begins with a citation to the above story: “Gen R. s 39 saw a castle דּוֹלֶקֶת [doleket] lighted.” This suggests that perhaps the point — or at least one point — of Rabbi Yitzchak’z story is about illumination of the structure perceived as the individual is crossing. This reading jives with the use of Psalm 45:11-12 to explain why Abraham was told to go: It’s through the individual crossing from place to place, leaving behind what they were taught — and so perceiving this illuminated/flaming structure — that God comes to desire the beauty of their actions (following Rashi on Ps.45).

Across and Afire

In exploring whether the fire was set, by whom, and why, R’ Brant Rosen (Tzedek Chicago, see above) said he was intrigued by the idea of “God as arsonist — the only way to get humanity’s attention.” “Arson” is such a specific word….and I suppose we could take an extremely cynical view: God, fed up with Creation and having promised no more Flood, opts to burn it down! (for the insurance?)…But even absent a legal view of “arson,” there are a lot of complications in considering the idea of God resorting to fire as a desperate attempt at communication.

Setting a fire, among humans, can show up within the “language of the unheard” (MLK used this expression earlier, but see “The Other America,” April 14, 1967), calling to mind the long-ago and still too relevant “Do the Right Thing.” But MLK, like many (re)viewers of Spike Lee’s 1989 movie, spoke of fires in a context called “riot.” Using the language of “rebellion” instead creates a very different framework. Are we envisioning God as a rioter? as someone setting a blaze for personal reasons? or God as rebel?

Rebellion requires at least two parties, usually one resisting a greater power in the other. In Rabbi Yitzchak’s tale, we see an individual crossing from one place to others. Different places suggest varying sets of circumstances and, inevitably, given the human condition, iniquities. In the framework of Psalm 45:11-12, it is the human act of crossing into new places that arouses in God a desire for beautiful human actions.

To what might this be compared?

Picture a cis-gender, heterosexual person, able of body and mind, with white skin and legal documentation. Now picture someone with a different, possibly overlapping, set of attributes. Like all of us, each person’s worldview has been formed by their status as well as their people and their family. Imagine the individual crossing into another place, through change of personal status, through truly hearing people of different status, and/or through becoming part of a different family or people.

Compare an individual who was crossing from place to place…

This very crossing creates new perceptions for the individual, building a personal framework that allows the crosser to understand relationships between one place and others as well as wider underlying structures. These new perceptions will bring beauty and appreciation, grief and agitation, awareness of danger and inequity,

…and conceived/understood/saw a structure/castle/fort afire/aglow.

The crosser asks: “Is no one in charge here?” A divine response bursts forth: “We are.”

The human crossing illuminates positive interconnections as well as injustices in need of urgent and immediate attention. Divine desire burns for beautiful human actions (per Rashi on Ps. 45:11-12), because God’s hands in the world are those of human beings. And humans “bowing” to God means seeking to manifest divine attributes. Jewish tradition has long taught that God and humans are partners in the work. A leaderful universe.


Rabbi Yitzchak illustrates

Paraphrasing as Breishit Rabbah continues:

They said, “Is it possible that this birah is without a director/leader?”
The owner/master [ba’al] of the birah
burst forth from above and said to them:
‘I am master of the birah.'”

And then comes the truth this illustration is substantiating:

What happened with Abraham our father was similar.
He said, “Is it possible that this universe lacks a person to look after it?,”
the Holy Blessed One looked at him and said to him:
‘I am the Master of the Universe.'”
“And let the king be aroused by your beauty since he is your master”
(Ps. 45:12)
And let the king be aroused for your beauty in the universe.
“And bow to him”
Hence, God said to Abram, [go forth…].

This is still from Breishit Rabbah 39. And, with that closing from Ps. 45:12 —

and let the king be aroused by your beauty;
since he is your lord, bow to him.

Ps. 45:12

— let’s return to the beginning of the passage, just prior to “an individual was crossing.” Rabbi Yitzchak begins the teaching with the previous verse from the Psalms.

Take heed, lass, and note,
incline your ear:
forget your people and your father’s house,

Ps. 45:11

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