Parsha Mitzvot: Vayakhel: Playing With Fire
I don’t know how else to say it, he loves to play with fire. I’ve known him almost my entire life, and he has always enjoyed pushing things as close as possible to the edge. For example, he, a huge Torah scholar, knows every possible leniency on which he can rely with confidence. He relies on every one. It is his statement that he does not believe in all the stringencies that have made life so challenging for many people who desire to be observant.
Our big debate is about Awe of God. I feel that Awe of God demands that our relationship with God be so precious to us that we avoid “the fire,” in order to protect the relationship. I follow many stringencies, not demanded by Jewish law, in order to prevent myself from overstepping any boundaries, which may lead to damaging my desired constant awareness of God.
My friend feels that his approach is better; he is convinced that by pushing the matter to the very edge of what is permitted and what is forbidden by Jewish law, he is actually more aware of God’s will then am I. He feels that at that point, let’s call it “the breaking point,” he at that point is making a conscious decision, a free choice, to follow God’s law. He feels that by pushing the matter he maintains a higher awareness of God.
I cannot in confidence claim that I have each achieved a higher level of Awe of God then has he. Nor can I claim that I have observed Jewish law more carefully than he. As much as I trust his judgment and his integrity, there is a small part of me that is creating distance between us. I realized that his pushing the envelope with such confidence has had a subtle influence on me. His criticisms of the rulings of many rabbis has caused me to view such rulings with just a little less respect than I did in the past.
I find it interesting that of the 39 categories of forbiden creative work on Shabbat, this portion singles out: “You shall not kindle fire in any of your dwellings on the Sabbath day.” This verse is understood as a prohibition against a Jewish court executing someone on the Shabbat. How strange! Why would the Torah choose to present the prohibition against kindling a fire on the Sabbath as beginning with the laws of capital punishment?
By the way, this is not the only such example of using the Jewish court as the basis to teach a law. We derive the prohibition against hitting someone else from the prohibition against the Jewish court administering one lash more then demanded by Jewish law. Again, the law is presented in the context of the Jewish court and from there expanded to apply in a much broader way to all of us.
The Jewish court is not only responsible for the specific case that is being judged at that moment, they are responsible for how the law will be understood, appreciated, and applied by all the people. There is no such thing as a single ruling. Each ruling sends a message. If the Jewish court is forbidden to administer a single extra lash while administering the punishment of lashes, how much more so are we forbidden to strike another person unless, not just permitted, but required by Jewish law to strike. (Something parents should remember before striking a child!)
Our portion is dealing with a person who is liable for the death penalty by fire. We are obviously dealing with someone who has made a very public statement against Jewish law. The person was warned before his act and specifically told that if he does what he intends to do he will be executed by fire. This person declared, “I understand the penalty, but I choose to do so anyway!” He then immediately does the action against which he was warned in front of witnesses. This is a man who has openly declared his disdain for Jewish law, his disrespect for the consequences. He is not even attempting to hide what he is doing from others. This is a person who has been brought to trial and charged and people are advocating for him, the court is trying to find ways to not execute him. No matter how much they tried, the court has decided that this man must be executed. He is a terrible influence. He has blatantly rejected Jewish law. He has publicly declared his disdain for the court and for Torah.
This is not just execution by fire, it is a Biblically demanded battle against a form of evil. This is not only a destructive fire, as it will be for the defendant, it serves a constructive purpose. It is being done by a Jewish court, in which each and every member is fully aware of God’s law and God’s presence. However, despite the fact that this is a fire demanded by Torah, that this is a war demanded by God, and despite the fact that there are other public fires that are permitted on the Sabbath, such as the fire in the Tabernacle and the Temple, the Jewish court is not permitted to administer this death penalty, or any other, on Shabbat. The Shabbat is greater than the battle that is calling for action.
Why was the death penalty of fire selected? I believe the reason is that the Jewish court must be aware that no matter how justified their decision, no matter how correct and accurate, despite its being demanded by Jewish law, when a court gathers to execute someone, no matter how deserving, they are playing with fire. They may not “play with fire” on the Sabbath.
It seems that the Torah is telling us that we all, to one degree or another, play with fire as we deal with life’s challenges. The Torah is presenting the Shabbat as a form of protection for those who “play with fire.” It is the one day of such clear and absolute boundaries that it calls our attention to the fact that there is so much “playing with fire” in all we do.
Each time we choose to speak of another person, even words of praise, we are playing with fire. We are stepping to the very edge of forbidden speech, the vocabulary of evil. In fact, each time we exercise our free choice in our service of God, there is an element of playing with fire; we are the ones who are choosing. The fire of arrogance is encroaching on our lives.
The laws of Shabbat are our protection against the fires with which we play. The boundaries are clear. They are absolute. There must be a focal point which keeps us centered on our ultimate goal and reminds us of how often we “play with fire.”
My friend’s intentions are good. Perhaps, even admirable. However, I am convinced that these there must be one area of law in which he will not play with fire in order to remember that he is constantly playing that game. There must be one area of law, one day, the Sabbath, in which the rules are so clear and absolute that he remembers that he may only “play with fire” if his center is strong.
Even a Jewish court administeringTorah law to another needs to be reminded of the dangers of playing with fire. I urge my friend to remember that. I suggest that he, has taught in this week’s portion by the Torah, use the Shabbat to protect himself.
I still tremble at his “play.” However, I would feel so much more comfortable with him if he remembered this lesson that applies to the greatest leaders of a generation, acting together, watching over each other. If they need it, we certainly do.