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Fire of the Heart - Yom Kippur 5781

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

I have had a clear, visceral sense of being in God’s presence very few times in my life.  One such time occurred when I went to another synagogue for a daily evening minyan on my father’s yahrzeit.  It was a small gathering, and the service was simple and straightforward. I certainly wasn’t expecting anything out of the ordinary to occur. Then, during the silent Amidah, I was suddenly struck by an intense feeling of being literally in God’s presence.  I was terrified.  I felt as if I were facing Something that held my life in Its hands, a Power that could end my life at any moment.  I stood, and I breathed, and I wondered what would happen next.  Traditionally, you end the Amidah by taking three steps backwards. How could I possibly back away from the Source of Life and Death?  I worried that I’d be standing in this small chapel for the rest of my life. 


I did finally sit down, and the sensation passed.  But that experience taught me something that our ancestors who wrote the Torah, who wrote our liturgy, knew very well: life is precarious and beyond our control, and this awareness is part of what it means to experience the divine.  I glimpsed this truth for a few minutes that evening in a profound and visceral way. It brought me a new understanding of the word “awe”: that it means not only “wow,” but also, sometimes, “yikes!” 


The first words of our Torah portion– Achrei Mot, “After the death”—evoke this awesome, somewhat terrifying aspect of divinity.  These words refer to an earlier episode in Leviticus, when Nadav and Avihu, the eldest sons of Aaron the High Priest, make an unauthorized offering at the moment of the dedication of the Mishkan, the holy sanctuary.  As they approach the altar, the Torah says that a fire came forth from YHVH and consumed them, and they died before YHVH.” It is a disturbing, shocking moment.


This is not the only time that God is depicted as a “consuming fire” in the Torah.  In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses reminds the Israelites that they heard God’s voice from within a fire at Mount Sinai, and that they trembled before Adonai, the “consuming fire.”  This Godly fire flares up throughout the Torah.




I have found that many of us like our God to be warm and cozy, not hot and fiery.  A divinity that burns people up is unsettling, to say the least.  But like all biblical metaphors for God, fire is complex. Fire is essential to human civilization, and the Torah itself is described by the early rabbis as “black fire written on white fire.” Yet as we’ve seen in the devastating wildfires on the west coast, the destructive power of fire is ever-present.  Fire is warmth, light and protection, and fire is that which annihilates.  The metaphor of God as Fire tries to capture this dichotomy, and the complex nature of our relationship to forces both within ourselves and in the world that are not always in our control.


We are living in a fiery moment, and I think there is something we can learn from the Biblical metaphor of God as fire.  Heat and fire is associated in the Hebrew Bible with Godly anger.  When the Israelites make a golden calf while Moses is up on Mount Sinai receiving the 10 commandments, Adonai is furious, and says to Moses: I see that this is a stiff-necked people. Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and I will consume them.”  As the people continue to complain and rebel during the desert wanderings, the destructive power of divine fire is unleashed time and again, “consuming” complainers and rebels alike.


What is this divine anger about?  To put it most simply, I think the Bible is trying to say that God has plans for humanity, and gets really pissed off when we refuse to play our part. Defiance of God means defiance of instructions to be in right-relation with the divine and with one another.  The very first time that God gets angry in the Torah is when Moses is hesitant to take on the job of liberating the Israelites.  When the Israelites are finally freed, they are warned that they too will suffer God’s anger if they fail to care for the most vulnerable in their midst.  YHVH tells the people: “You shall not oppress any widow or orphan.  If you oppress them, when they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my anger shall burn hot. 


When the covenant is denied, when God’ plans are thwarted, when the people try to turn back to Egypt—at those moments, the flames of divine anger blaze.




There is also a transformative aspect of Godly fire, and it is related to the Hebrew word qanna.  For example, in Psalm 79 we read:


How long, YHVH - will you be angry forever? How long will your qannā burn like fire?


This word “qanna” is usually translated as “jealousy.”  This is where we get the unfortunate depiction of the angry, jealous Old Testament God.  But what if qanna, even though it does mean “jealousy” when associated with humans, actually means something very different in relation to the divine?  


One biblical scholar, Nissim Amzalag of Ben-Gurion University, argues that qannā is not a divine version of jealousy at all.  Rather, he says, qanna is an “essential attribute of YHVH” that is pictured as heat, fire, and the lava flows of volcanoes.[1]  All of these images are connected, he suggests, to the ancient metallurgical process of “furnace remelting.”  In this process, a corroded copper object is completely melted down in a furnace, and the molten metal is then shaped into something new. 


In this metaphor, God’s fiery qanna is a process of destruction, of melting something entirely down, for the sake of transformation.  And so, the Biblical prophets invoke the power of God’s anger and the divine qannā when they condemn oppressors and then offer a vision of social transformation.


I was studying these Biblical texts about God as fire with members of Dorshesi Tzedek this past June, right after the murder of George Floyd, as protests began erupting across the country.  Here, right before us, was holy anger, accompanied by actual fire.  And like the consuming fire of YHVH, once the fires of protests were unleashed, they could not always be so easily controlled.  And I wonder, as protests over systemic racism continue, as a potentially seismic shift in an understanding of white supremacy occurs among many white people, if we are in a kind of qanna moment as a society. Collective anger at injustice, like the flames that erupt when YHVH is angry, can sometimes get out of control.  Yet out of those flames can also come disruptive and necessary transformation. 


It is also possible to have qanna experiences on a smaller scale, in our personal lives.  Personal meltdown can sometimes bring in its wake new possibility.  In a talk she gave in 1977 called “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” the author and activist Audre Lorde described her first encounter with cancer as this kind of “furnace remelting” experience—an experience which freed her to speak in new and powerful ways:


“In becoming forcibly and essentially aware of my mortality, and of what I wished and wanted for my life, however short it might be, priorities and omissions became strongly etched in a merciless light, and what I most regretted were my silences. Of what had I ever been afraid?” 


She goes on to say: “I began to recognize a source of power within myself that comes from the knowledge that while it is most desirable not to be afraid, learning to put fear into a perspective gave me great strength.”[2]


The “source of power” that Lorde discovered within herself was a sacred fire, kindled in the awareness of her own mortality, which gave her a new ability to speak her truth. In her experience I see the divine qanna at work, the transformative power that emerges out of the fires of loss and fear.  Like God speaking to the Israelites “out of the fire” at Sinai, there are times in our lives when we have the opportunity to hear a divine message coming directly out of our terror, our pain, if we are able to withstand it.


The Biblical  texts about God as a “consuming fire” also teach us that there are times when a “holy fire” of anger is an appropriate, even sacred response to events in our lives or in the world around us.  Anger is a completely normal—and healthy—reaction to situations of abuse or oppression. Yet anger, like fire, can also be a profoundly destructive.  It can overwhelm us, causing damage to ourselves or to others.  It can consume our spirits and destroy our relationships. 



Often, anger covers over emotions like fear or sadness, and prevents us from attending to a deeper level of pain. We also need to be wary when anger is manipulated by those in power for insidious purposes; when ungodly anger is stoked for purposes of destruction, not transformation.


Dov Baer of Mezritch, one of the founders of Hasidic Judaism, taught this about anger:


“Your anger should always be “for the sake of heaven.”  Direct your anger toward the forces of evil in the person who upsets you, and not at the person himself…Then you can use your anger to bring these forces under the sway of holiness.”[3]


Anger “for the sake of heaven” is anger that I can channel in such a way that it becomes transformative—both for myself, and for the world around me.  This summer, I read an interview with the African-American hip-hop artist Oompa.  She was asked how she was interacting with the movement for Black lives, and she responded: “What I will say is that I live in a constant state of rage about being Black…I think that my rage isn’t new. I’ve learned to live with this rage—or this understanding, or this sadness—of what it means to be Black in America.” She went on to describe her artistic practice as both a reflection on her state of being, and a vehicle for catharsis.[4]  Oompa’s ability to turn a “constant state of rage” into art is a powerful example of “anger for the sake of heaven,” as something transformative that seeks to bring the forces of evil “under the sway of holiness.”  We can turn a burning rage into art, into protest, into a collective reshaping of our society.


To be able to discern whether or not my anger is merely self-serving or is indeed “for the sake of heaven,” I need to be able to step back, to take a breath, to settle my body and my mind. 



And the next step, according to Dov Baer, is remembering that the true target of “anger for the sake of heaven” is not the essence of the person or people who have angered me. Rather, my target is either a particular destructive behavior, or a greater evil that these words and actions represent.  Dov Baer’s teaching is a reminder that my ultimate goal is to completely transform something that is destructive into something that is holy. It is not to destroy another person (even if imagining that might feel good). Even asking the question, “how can I bring the negative forces I am facing under the sway of holiness?” can help transform an angry feeling into a productive force for transformation.


When Moses first encounters God, he sees the divine in a bush that is burning yet is not consumed.  I once studied this text with a group of Jewish social justice activists, and one participant noted that to do the work that Moses was called to do—the work of fighting injustice, of bringing about liberation—you have to have burning within you a passion, an anger at the way things are—and it can consume you.  This is why so many activists suffer from burn-out.  The challenge is to keep the fire burning without having it consume us.


In the priestly rituals described in this morning’s Torah reading, fire was used as means of bringing human beings into relationship with the Divine. This was the purpose of the sacrifices, the burnt offerings.  The priests would  keep a fire burning on the altar day and night, never allowing it to go out.   After the destruction of the Temple, the sacrifices took on metaphorical meaning. In rabbinic tradition, the worship service of the Temple was transformed into avodat halev, “service of the heart.”  Our hearts became the altar, and our inner intention the fire.


While “service of the heart” is usually understood to refer to prayer, I would suggest it is any practice that connects us to the Godliness that fills creation.  We can do our service, make our offerings, in many realms, from working for social change to fostering loving relationships to creating spiritual community to caring for the earth.  It might take the form of teaching or studying, making art or music, protesting or praying.  And just as the priests in the Mishkan had to work to keep a fire burning on the altar, so we too need to pay attention to the inner fire that fuels our service.




We have a very long road ahead of us.  The coming weeks and months and years are going to demand a lot.  I see in America today the price being paid for 500 years of unpaid debts—debts to indigenous people, to African-American people, to people of all races who have suffered in a society that has elevated the worship of the market, of profit, over the most basic human rights.  When the violence of genocide and dispossession is never atoned for, when the legacy of the evil embodied in slavery is never healed, there has to be a reckoning, and I fear we are facing it today.  All that has been unaddressed has become kindling for the fires that we see erupting across our society, often in unholy, ungodly ways. 


So we find ourselves in a qanna moment.  Things are indeed getting melted down, and it will be up to us to reshape our society into something Godly, something that can still become a vessel for the Spirit of love and justice.


In the coming days, we will need to fight ungodly fire with Godly fire.  This will take discipline and commitment and an unwillingness to give in to fear or despair.  To do this work , each of us will need to pay attention to what feeds the sacred fire in our hearts.  This is not selfish; it is essential. We need to make time and space for those things that nourish our spirits—whether it’s being in nature or connecting with good friends, coming to services or practicing yoga or tai chi or meditation, making music or art or cooking for ourselves and others.


Sometimes we let care for our spirits drop to the very bottom of our “to do” list.  But even with all the obstacles I know so many of us are facing because of the pandemic, I hope we can all do whatever we can to tend to our inner fire, even if it’s just for 10 minutes a day. And if you’re not sure what feeds that inner fire, then this is a great time to start figuring it out (and give me a call if you’d like my help).




And just as we need to provide fuel for our inner fire, we also need to be wary that we don’t let it get dampened by cynicism or escapism or despair.  To keep the fire burning on the altar, the priests had to shlep wood every single day.  We are in a for a long shlep.  Panic won’t help, regret won’t help, blaming others won’t help.  Pretending that others will fix it won’t help.  What will help is staying clear on those underlying problems that are the targets of our holy anger, and doing all that we can to bring the evil forces under the sway of holiness.  May we do all of this in a spirit of love, with compassion for ourselves and others.  May each of our avodat halev, our service of the heart, be for the sake of healing, for the sake of justice, for the sake of transformation.



Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Yom Kippur 5781


[1] “Furnace Remelting as the Expression YHWH’s Holiness: Evidence from the Meaning of qanna’ in the Divine Context,” Nissim Amzallag, Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 134, No. 2 (Summer 2015), pp. 233-252.

[2] “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” in Sister Outsider, Crossing Press, Berkeley CA, 1984.

[3] Quoted in God in All Moments: Mystical and Practical Spiritual Wisdom from Hasidic Masters, edited and translated by Or Rose and Ebn D. Leader, Jewish Lights Publishing, Vermont 2004, p. 77.

[4] “Boston Hip-Hop Artists In This Moment,” Boston Globe, July 26, 2020.

Fri, December 8 2023 25 Kislev 5784