Mishpatim: The Inferno


Unplugged Thoughts

I was always intrigued with the conversations that we carry on with ourselves. Words that no one ever hears. What would it be like if we could hear these spontaneous and informal thoughts, before they have been censored and edited by our more sober faculties?

No, my friends, I am not going to expose my own innermost voices. They are simply too insane or embarrassing to share. But here is a small glimpse into some of my fleeting thoughts sitting last weekend at a Shabbat table. An exercise, shall we say, in planned spontaneity – a sort of premeditated unplugging of the mind.

Brooklyn Heights, February 2004 — Last weekend I had the honor of being hosted at a Shabbaton in Brooklyn Heights. [For the uninitiated a Shabbaton is weekend Shabbat community event which usually features a meal or two with a guest lecturer.]Brooklyn Heights – an elegant neighborhood nestled in the northwest corner of Brooklyn, on the south side of the Hudson River, right off the Brooklyn Bridge. The promenade offers a stunning view of the Lower Manhattan skyline and what was once the World Trade Center.

Up Remsen Street, a few blocks from the promenade, is Congregation Bnai Avraham, which hosted me. The spiritual leader of the congregation, Rabbi Aaron Raskin, is a warm and dedicated man in his 30’s. He is an energized and dynamic individual, in the spirit of his grandfather, the late Rabbi JJ Hecht. Rabbi Raskin just published his first book, Letters of Light, exploring the spiritual energy of the Hebrew Alphabet.

Though I would love to give you a report of the weekend, I actually am writing this as an introduction to an unexpected event that happened at Friday night dinner. I was seated near a gentleman named Shimon Romach. He actually didn’t plan on coming to the Shabbaton. Indeed, this is the very first time he ever witnessed a group gathering together in this manner. He happened to be in the area on official business, and one of the synagogue members invited him for Shabbat dinner so that he could make a presentation and solicit support for his activities.

Shimon Romach was born in Baghdad, raised in Israel. After serving with honors in the Israeli army, he was recruited by the Shin Bet, Israel’s secret service, where he reached a high-ranking position. Today he heads the Israeli Fire department. Official title: Fire and Rescue Commissioner and Chief Fire Inspector of Israel.

I was fascinated by some of the unknown activities that the Israeli Fire Department are involved in.

Presently there are 1700 active firefighters, deployed in 93 Fire Stations throughout Israel.

They all formerly served in the Tzahal, IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) – chosen from the best soldiers of the army.

These firefighters have learned to respond to an emergency call within 30 seconds and they are the first to arrive at the scene of every terrorist attack, to stabilize the immediate area, defuse any potential explosives, extinguish fires, and secure the location.

In addition to their expertise in extinguishing fires they specialize in rescuing victims trapped under rubble or in car and bus wreckages following bombings. They have also learned skills in dealing with “secondary devices” that are aimed at killing rescue workers. They also give vital information to the IDF Home Front Command and other rescue organizations, enabling them to come prepared with the necessary equipment.

Most forest fires in Israel are acts of arson by Arab terrorists. Forests serve a vital role in Israel, being that much of the land is arid desert. Forests are thus regular attacked – as a convenient and easy target for terrorists.

The fire department is now actively training to handle biological and chemical attacks, which they foresee as the next stage of terrorist activity, G-d forbid. If there should be an attack on civilians with non-conventional weapons they will go in at point-blank range to contain toxic agents and prevent their dissemination.

Mr. Romach is here in the United States, among other reasons, to raise funds for an under equipped force.

As I listened attentively, I was struck by the entire infrastructure that has been created to counter and contain terrorist activity. In addition to all conventional fire and rescue missions, the Israeli fire department has to deal with a whole new array of terrorist attacks.

Unsung heroes they truly are. Yet another army of noble individuals risking their lives to save others. As cynical as one may be, your heart cannot help but be deeply moved by this valiant force.

And then my psychological voice began to speak within:

What percentage of our lives is occupied with putting out fires? How much time and energy is invested in damage control – dealing with crisis, cleaning up the … that our parents endowed us with? Tired and exhausted – how much time and energy do we have left for building, for growth, for creating something greater than we began with?

And finally, the great question to G-d is this: Is this what You, Almighty One, want? Is this the way You had it planned that so much energy should be spent in extinguishing fires?

Why don’t You give us some peace so that we can concentrate on building something new, and not just smothering the old?!

I look around the room. Perhaps 60 men and women and some playful children are celebrating a Shabbat dinner together. Everyone is taken by this Jewish Fire Commissioner from Baghdad bluntly sharing the struggles of life and death in a country 5700 miles away.

A woman comes over to me with tears in her eyes. She has suffered greatly in her life. “I need strength just to get up and move around,” she tells me. “I have been fighting for so long, how much more can a person take?!”

I think of all the people around me. Are they happy? Are they thinking about their lives, or are they going through the motions? How many happy people have I really met? Many people have convinced themselves that they are happy. Many sincere people don’t think about it too much. Many others are just resigned to a life of “quiet desperation.” No doubt there are some truly happy people – but is it just their temperament, their good fortune or just their ability to avoid the issue head on? Is happiness circumstantial?

We are all such vulnerable human beings. The cruel winds of life can always smack us when we least expect it,

My mind wanders back to the firefighters in Israel.

What would the world be like if all the fires were doused and we had all the free time to pursue positive growth? What would be like if we had no enemy to fight?

I suddenly recall reading an article about opulent Palm Beach and its sun-worshipping young adults. Children of the wealthiest and the mightiest frolic on the golden green beaches framed against turquoise-blue skies, gleaming teeth on perfect bodies on sleek water skis, with nary a worry in the world. They have no fires to put out. Physical fires that is. But what flaming demons lurk within their psyches? Will they be happy people, or will their blessed lives spoil them beyond repair?

So here we have a taste of messianic utopia: Affluence that needs not fight an enemy. With all the freedom it offers us does prosperity actually bring people to great heights? Or is passion possible only when facing crisis, exclusively relegated to the domain of the firefighters battling flames?

You have to wonder: Is life a no-win inferno? Fires rage all around us. If it isn’t a physical fire, then it’s a psychological one. If it’s neither of the two then it’s a spiritual fire. If you aren’t facing a crisis around us, we often face a crisis within. Is there any other option? Dante’s Inferno and other desperate writings give us a taste of a burning world, with little hope in sight.

Then I remember the paradoxical words of our sages:

“One hour of return and good deeds in this world is better than all the life of the World to Come. One hour of bliss in the World to Come is better than all the life of this world.”

Which one is it? The mystics explain: From G-d’s perspective, our hard work and battles in this world elicit the deepest pleasure as they fulfill the ultimate purpose of existence, infinitely more than all the beauty of the World to Come. From mans’ perspective, bliss in the World to Come is far greater than all the pleasures in this world.

But shall the twain ever meet? Does this mean that we can never have both worlds together – either we struggle and G-d has deep pleasure, or we live in bliss but never reach the ultimate? Says the Rebbe, that in the final days both pleasures become integrated. First, we begin with a life of struggle. Adversary motivates us. Battling fires around us access the deepest resources both within us and within G-d. Give man animal bliss and he would not be motivated to grow, to transcend. Eliminate the impediments, and passion would not be born. Creativity is the child of frustration, as necessity is the mother of invention. Without tension there would be no intensity. Without contraction there would be no expansion, without inhaling we would not exhale.

But then – and here is the punch line: After years of hard work, we break through to the other side and then we come to a point where “we can have our cake and eat it too.” A world in which we can have true bliss without complacency. A life in which peace of mind and peace of heart does not compromise our restlessness, but actually feeds it. Our motivation is then driven by the need to transcend beyond our accomplishments of yesterday. We are at peace with our restlessness. But instead of good battling evil, and going from bad to good, we will be going from good to better – in an infinite journey toward G-d.

To reach that state of being we need to first go through the inferno and fight the fires around us. Then we can reach a place where we have the same passion to “go from strength to strength.”

As I look at the firefighters around me and see the exuberant faces of innocent children yet to taste disappointment and the brilliance of these teachings begins to resonate.

Yes, we are all firefighters. Whether they be physical, psychological or spiritual we are all charged with the mission to quench fires. They may be fires of ignorance or anger. Many things are burning around us, many causing harm to others. Our role is to extinguish the fires we come in contact with. Dante may be right: The world may be a fiery inferno. But as firefighters we are even more powerful.

Moreover, firefighting is not our destiny. The battles of today are mere preludes to a far greater battle tomorrow: The war against apathy – the apathy born out of comfort. The battle to not allow peace to stop us from fervently aspiring to a greater good.

I once heard a fascinating explanation of a cryptic Zohar. The Bible tells us that the Egyptians “enslaved the Jewish people and embittered their lives with mortar and bricks.” Says the Zohar, that the Hebrew words “mortar” and “bricks” (“chomer” and “leveinim”) means “kal v’chomer” (the fortiori argument) and “libun hilchosa” (legal clarification). What connection is there between these two extremes — “mortar and bricks” of bitter slavery and the cognitive process?! Nothing seems more antithetical than hard labor and intellectual exercises!

We all must face battles in this lifetime. We all must exert ourselves. It is your choice which battles they will be: A struggle with darkness, or an effort to reach a deeper dimension of light. Restlessness is the natural state of the soul, the sign of life, like the ceaseless flicker of the flame. You have the choice whether it will be a healthy restlessness or unhealthy anxiety: Will it be the agitation of hard labor in an enslaved life of physical “mortar and bricks,” or the intense work to discover the truth.

No, we do not always need an enemy to discover passion. We have had enough enemies. The time has come to demonstrate – for ourselves, the world and G-d – that we do not need fires to fuel our passions. They can be fueled by the inner longing of the soul for the infinite and… beyond.


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