Smoke and FireThe temperature in the Temple was smoking hot. One can only imagine that the summer months in Jerusalem were hot enough as it was. Add to that the myriads of people that filled the temple on a given day, and the many fires atop the altar, and you can imagine that the temperature was through the roof.
Yet, it seems that G-d took a special interest in fires, especially smoking hot fires. The sacrificial meat roasting atop the altar required plenty of fire, but quite apart from the fire needed to roast the meat, G-d required a separate bonfire on the altar top. Every day, two kohanim (priests) would carry two logs to the altar and light a separate bonfire that wasn’t used for the meat. It was a fire for the sake of fire.
What was the purpose of this fire, wasn’t it hot enough in the Temple?
In addition to the fire, there was apparently a preoccupation with smoke. It was not enough that the Temple was stifling hot. Special care was taken to ensure that it was smoking hot. The Mishnah teaches that every day, G-d performed a miracle in the Temple to ensure that the plume of fire rising from the altar was undisturbed by wind. One would imagine that the Temple Mount was a drafty place as mountain tops often are. It would have required constant tending on G-d’s part to miraculously prevent any disturbance in the smoke. Why was that so important?
Smoking HotWhen you throw a log onto a fire, the organic compounds in the wood such as sap and other hydrocarbons begin to evaporate. As they evaporate they let out a cloud of smoke. The heavier the wood, the thicker the smoke. Smoke is an indication that the heavy log is succumbing to the heat of the flames. Ironically, the logs that are most resistant to fire, are the greatest producers of smoke. This is because the heavier the log, the more combustive power it has. When it finally succumbs to the fire’s heat, it fuels a long and steady flame.
The burning log and the flame are metaphors for us and G-d. We often clash with G-d. G-d wants us to do one thing, and we want to do another. The battlefields are our daily choices and the battle plays out in our hearts and minds. We have lots of sap, a metaphor for our ego and selfishness. We don’t want to surrender our sap to G-d, we would rather use it for our own interests and pleasures.
When we are inspired to rise above ourselves and make the right choice rather than the selfish or egotistical choice, we become the fuel that energizes G-d’s flame. And as we do, we emit a cloud of smoke. The smoke represents the surrendering of sap to fire.
When Jews entered the Temple, they beheld the bonfire atop the altar and its undisturbed plume of smoke rising heavenward. They would contemplate the spiritual flame that seeks to consume their own sap, their penchant for selfish pleasure and their ego. They would visualize themselves surrendering to the searing heat of spirituality and allowing their ego to evaporate in a cloud of smoke.
The spectacle was a metaphor that inspired them to greatness.
Three StepsBuilding this fire entailed three steps, each a metaphor for the surrendering of our ego. First, the Kohen had to carry the log up onto the altar. That represents lifting ourselves out of the pit of selfishness and up to a plane of humble nobility. Then the kohen would kindle the logs with a natural flame. Finally, a flame would descend from above and consume the logs.
I once had the privilege of observing these three steps play out between two very good friends, we will call them Jack and Joe. They were sitting together one night, and under the influence of alcohol, Jack began to needle Joe. Joe asked Jack to stop, but Jack failed to recognize how serious Joe was and he doubled down on the needling. After repeated requests went unheeded, Joe left in a huff.
I had never seen anyone sober as rapidly as Jack sobered that night. He immediately realized that he had wronged his friend, and he went in search of Joe hoping to apologize. He returned some twenty minutes later, crestfallen. He was unable to locate Joe. I encouraged him to try again the next day, but he insisted that he would continue the search that very night.
When I saw this I thought to myself, this man is lifting his heavy log, his ego, and the sap within, the incorrigible pleasure he had taken from needling his friend, to the top of the altar. He was lifting himself out of his thoughtless, insensitive, and selfish mindset, brought on no doubt by liberal libations of alcohol, to a mindset of caring, sensitive, and loving concern for his friend. That was the first step.
The next morning, Jack approached me with genuine concern. He had located Joe and had begged his forgiveness, but Joe had refused to forgive him. I encouraged Jack to not give up on his friend, and to ask again a little later. At some point in the early afternoon, Jack asked me to accompany him so that he could apologize to Joe in front of me.
I readily agreed, and we approached Joe. In a halting voice, Jack, the former needler, current penitent, explained that he had overstepped his bounds the previous night and distressed his friend. He did not intend to offend Joe and did not want to damage their long-term friendship. He assured Joe that he would never repeat his offense and declared that he is begging forgiveness in front of me because I was present when he gave offense.
I noticed that when he began his apology, he was still defending his behavior a little bit even as he was asking for forgiveness. Jack was claiming that his behavior was normal among friends, but since Joe had taken offense, he wanted to ask forgiveness. Joe refused to let him get away with that and reminded Jack that he should have known it was inappropriate after being asked to stop several times. As Jack heard this, he surrendered his last layer of defensiveness, and asked for forgiveness plainly and humbly.
When I saw that I thought to myself that Jack had just taken the next step; he had kindled his log. After resisting the sacred flame, his log was now fully lit and smoking hot.
Joe obviously recognized Jack’s genuine regret because his heart melted, and he forgave him outright. But Joe did not stop there. He insisted that all three of us raise our glasses and drink to a renewed commitment of continued friendship, but this time coupled with thoughtfulness and sensitivity.
I walked away with tears in my eyes. I was sure that at that moment G-d was deriving great joy from the love between his children on earth. In my mind’s eye, I saw the heavenly flames descend from above and consume the smoking hot offering of these two special souls.
A pact of friendship and oneness; one that we can all admire. One from which we can all learn.