The Carmel forest fire
The Carmel forest fire, December 2, 2010. Photo by Getty Images
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Even a cursory glance at the worldwide myths that deal with fire reveals a tension between fire as a natural, uncontrollable element, and domesticated fire, which from a certain stage of history is at the service of humankind ‏(we did not achieve total control of fire until about 10,000 years ago‏). Once harnessed to the service of man, fire became a vital force for the advancement of technology, because of this element’s potential to alter the state of other materials. At the same time, though, this development brought about an internal change in family life.

The change was basically architectonic, but acquired great symbolic and spiritual importance. To the structure of the house was now added the burning hearth, which became the warm place around which family and friends gathered. Domestic fire became a symbol of warmth and love − and it is self-evident that, in all cultures, domestic fire was immediately identified with the wife.

Indeed, looking after the hearth and its fire was added to the woman’s household chores, like looking after the stove for cooking the family’s food or lighting a candle where what was needed was not heat, only light. In the Jewish tradition, too, lighting the Sabbath candles is entrusted to the woman of the house.

Henceforth a close identification was established between woman and home, hearth and stove, all of them representing warmth, love and concern for the members of the household and guests. There are some ‏(like Evelyn Reed‏) who maintained that the very act of gaining control of fire in ancient times was accomplished by women − not men, who were busy hunting.

In any event, two cycles formed in the human consciousness in which fire played opposing roles. There was the wild fire, whose origin lay in the “outside” world, which constituted an uncontrolled, threatening element. At the same time, domestic fire was a contrasting symbol − that of a paradise cloaked in warmth. We should also take note of the fact that the “outside” fire is a draconic, amorphous entity that maliciously “infects” everything with the amorphous trait of chaos and loss of “form.” In contrast. the role of domestic fire is to create form and overlay everything with an aesthetic flavor, whether in the cooking of food or forging the tools in the ironmonger’s workshop.

Intriguingly, at a certain stage religions adopted the feminine-domestic symbol of the fire burning in the hearth and applied it to the “public house,” namely, the local temple. In the temple, the handling of fire was transferred to the ritual sphere and priests ‏(men, too, of course‏) were entrusted with its preservation. Thus a new identity was created in the course of human history between fire and the presence of a god. Fire signified the god’s presence in the sanctuary that had been built in his name, and its extinguishing was considered a portent of disaster, a sign that the community had fallen into disfavor with the god and that he would no longer watch over it, leaving it exposed to the hammer blows of destiny.

In the Hebrew Bible, too, the Temple priests were enjoined to preserve the eternal flame and not let it go out ‏(Leviticus 6:6‏), as in most temples around the world. Such customs were deeply ingrained in the society of the early Persians ‏(the Zoroastrians‏), whose few communities ‏(in India and the United States‏) continue to this day to maintain an eternal flame in every home and a public fire in the temple. In the ancient world, it should be recalled, this was not an unusual custom. For example, in the Roman world ‏(which inherited the custom from the Greeks‏) the rite of the goddess Vesta required that an eternal flame burn in every home, as well as in every local temple dedicated to her.

All the temples dedicated to Vesta were round in shape, with an opening in the east, facing the rising sun. Again we see the connection between the core of the fire that is not extinguished and the intimate, sacred place. The concept that underlay the eternal flame in the Vesta temples was that a new place of habitation could be established only if the fire that would be lit came from an older temple. Otherwise, the new community would be destroyed.

In this connection, it is worth noting that the myth of the transfer of the torch ‏(familiar to us from the Olympic Games‏) has its source in the story of Euchides, who in 479 BCE ran naked to the altar of Apollo in Delphi in order to transfer fire by means of his torch to places where the Persians had “contaminated” the fire that had burnt there. ‏(Does an association with something similar in our Hanukkah not spring to mind?‏)

Another interesting fact also suggests the internalization of fire in the home as a feminine element: Many myths perceive the female sexual organ as the source of the spiritual fire in the “temple of the world.” An identification between that organ and the place of holiness in which the Shekhinah − the Divine Presence − resides ‏(and, it must be added: where a constant fire burns‏) is found in many occult doctrines. It exists, too, in kabbala literature, as already noted by Prof. Yehuda Liebes ‏(“The Messiah of the Zohar”‏), and it is also possible that the Zohar views the phrase “wings of the Shekhinah” as an allusion to the female labia ‏(Daniel Abrams, “The Female Body of God in Kabbalistic Literature”‏). Now we can understand well what is attributed to the holy man in the Indian Upanishads ‏(Brihadaranyaka, VI, iv, 3‏) on the subject of coupling with a woman: “Her lap is the sacrificial altar, her hair the sacrificial grass, her skin within the organ the lighted fire; the two labia of the vulva are the two stones of the soma-press.” ‏(Translation from www.sss-now.org/sacred_sex/archive/brihadaranyaka_upanishad.htm‏)

Based on this, the scholar Alex Wayman gathered that the sages of Tantra understood the well-known myth about the Buddha, who, while sitting under the Bodhi tree, touched the earth and it shook, as a symbol of the holy person ‏(not like a monk‏) who is capable of “touching” Mother Earth ‏(the feminine‏) and thereby energizing the six chakras that drive high spiritual energy up the spinal cord and lead to enlightenment of the “seventh degree” ‏(in his view, these numbers have a scriptural influence through Christianity, which entered India in this period‏).

It is worth remembering, by the way, that in Hinduism this fire energy resides in everything ‏(similar to the view of Greek Stoicism‏). Lighting it in “the sky,” for example, brings down rain and thus the “force of fire” arises in the tree, making it possible to rub the tree and produce fire. The other creatures are nourished by the vegetation, and thus the “force of fire” is transformed into energy in their bodies. In humans, the energy of fire exists primarily in the head, hence the radiant halo whose aura is particularly obvious above the heads of saints.

Thus far, in any event, we have seen a process of the internalization of the fire myth as a feminine force, the force of Eros; but we can also trace the internalization process on the other side of fire, the side of Thanatos, namely, fire as a destructive force. One of the most widespread uses of fire was for purification, a process carried out in the ancient world by means of burning the sacrifice by fire ‏(including, sometimes, human sacrifices‏). The prevailing assumption was that these sacrifices were desired by God, of which a sign, according to the tradition of the Jewish Sages, was that in the Temple fire would descend from heaven in order to burn the sacrifice ‏(Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Zevahim, 61, p. 2‏).

However, beginning at a certain stage, the religions began to undergo an internalization process in this regard as well, which took the form of a transition to talking about sacrifices of the heart − inner sacrifice − namely, the sacrifice of the ego. A famous example from the history of religion is the Buddha’s saying that there is no longer a need to murder animals in order to perform the rite of sacrifice, because henceforth “I light the flame within me ... My heart is the place of the hearth. The burning is the repair of the ego” ‏(Samyutta Nikaya, I, 169‏).

In our tradition, too, the Amora Rabbi Levi maintains that the commandment to burn sacrifices on the altar is cited in the Torah only to distance the people from their former primitive habit: “As Israel was addicted to idol worship in Egypt, and used to bring offerings to the Seirim ‏(Demons‏) ... God said: Always bring me their offerings into the Tabernacle, and they will thus be drawn away from idolatry” ‏(Vayikra Rabbah 22, 8‏). The implication is that when people no longer practice idolatry, the burning of animals will no longer be desired by God. ‏(Rabbi Levi’s concept of internalization extends far beyond this, encompassing all the precepts uttered “against the evil urge” − see Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin, 21, p. 2.‏)

Many of these elements were discerned with the special sensitivity that was a hallmark of Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter, the leader of the third generation of the Ger Hasidic movement at the end of the 19th century, in his book, Sefat Emet ‏(“The Language of Truth”‏). I will conclude, then, with an original insight from his doctrine, which clarifies the difference between the types of fire we have talked about.

Alter begins by distinguishing between a “fire that burns” ‏(the unruly element‏) and a “fire that gives light” ‏(the domestic element‏). This, he finds, is appropriate for the internal division in the Temple: the sacrifices were burnt on the altar in the Temple court, while the menorah illuminated the inner Temple. He too explains this difference by invoking the element of internalization: the purpose of the first symbol is to encourage people to use the consuming and destroying fire in a positive way − to “burn” within them the evil urges ‏(he terms this “turning away from the bad”‏). The second element − whose purpose is to light up the world by doing good − “is more internal and closer [meaning that the inner Temple is closer to the Holy of Holies than the Temple court].”

However, Alter warns us that we must be mindful of the fact that the main part of the average person’s spiritual practice begins with a thorough burning of the ego elements before they “jump up” to show how much of a “good influence” they are on the world outside. If so, it is more correct to say that “all depends on the burning fire, as it is written ‏(Psalms 34:15‏): ‘Turn from evil’ first of all, and only then, ‘do good.’”

Anyone who pays close heed to these words can perhaps share in the thought that the dire fire disaster that struck us might be seen as a self-reflection for us, a process in which the burning fire that was sent from one person to another will become a fire that will consume that very hatred, so that ultimately we can posit ourselves at the conclusion of the purification process as a country whose menorah symbol illuminates the outside world with an “inner pleasant” light.