Chukat: The Chutzpah of Entering Fire

This is the Torah (law): A man who dies in a tent…

Numbers 19:14

The Torah is only acquired by those who kill themselves for it in the tents of study.

-The Zohar

It happened in the winter of 1798 or 1799, when Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch was a child of eight or nine. Every Friday night Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi would deliver a discourse of chassidic teaching to a select group of disciples. Little Mendel begged to be allowed in, but his grandfather refused.

The dwelling of Rabbi Schneur Zalman consisted of two two-room buildings, joined by a connecting passageway. In one of the wings, a large wood-burning stove, used for heating and occasionally to bake bread, was set in the wall between the two rooms. The stove opened into the outer room, and also protruded into the inner room which served as Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s study.

One Friday night, the Rebbe was delivering his weekly discourse in his study. It was an exceptionally cold night, so a gentile was summoned to heat the oven. For some reason, he found it difficult to push the logs all the way in to the oven, so he built the fire near the opening of the stove. As a result, the outer room soon began to fill with smoke. Once again, he tried to push the burning logs further in, but they wouldn’t budge. The poor man had to start all over again. He put out the fire, pulled out the logs, and peered into the stove to see what was preventing the logs from going in.

His shouts and shrieks summoned the entire household. The session in Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s room was disrupted; those in the second building also came running. Inside the stove lay a young boy.

-Rabbi Yanki Tauber
“The Path of Fire”
Commentary on Torah Portion Chukat
Once Upon a Chasid series

Chassidic tales are very compelling but it’s impossible to know how much some of them represent actual events. I’ve come to look at these tales as stories that have been crafted to communicate important moral and religious thoughts to a specific audience. Since I’m obviously not part of that audience, it’s rather puzzling that I should be drawn to them at all. Certainly most of my fellow Christians are at best, indifferent to the stories of the Chassidim and prefer moral commentaries from the ancient or current Christian scholars and commentators.

So what’s wrong with me?

I don’t know.

According to Rabbi Eli Touger’s commentary on this Torah Portion:

The term Chukim refers to those mitzvos whose rationale cannot be grasped by human intellect.

I find my own “rationale” for pursuing the writing of a blog focused on not only Jewish, but specifically Chassidic teachings, to be just as difficult to grasp by my intellect. As I’ve said in the past, the content that I discover in Chabad sources talks to me with my metaphors, but it doesn’t make sense that it should. This is not only because I’m not Jewish (and certainly not Orthodox), but that I am not particularly learned either. I should be just as put off by what I’m reading as most people in the church. I have no explanation for why I return to this particular pool daily to drink and seek refreshment.

But then not all of my meditations are particularly refreshing.

I mentioned just the other day that we are all seeking out a greater imagination, particularly when our own well becomes dry. I’ve also said that there are times when I feel as if I’m in a wilderness waiting for God to do something, but in truth, it is God who waits in the desert for me. Like a dunce in the corner of the classroom, I may have asked God too many stupid questions but I just can’t figure out how else to talk to Him.

But it’s not just me and God. If it were, I suppose life wouldn’t seem so complicated. Being married to the girl with the Jewish soul has taught me that Judaism isn’t really accessible to me, but then Christianity isn’t exactly an open door, either. I call myself a Christian as a matter of intellectual honesty, but I’m the weirdest Christian I know. If I ever entered a church and actually said what I really think, feel, and believe in a completely unfiltered manner, I’d most likely get thrown out on my ear.

I’ve talked about “not fitting in” before and I suppose this missive is just the latest incarnation of that personal state. Judaism is, by definition, community and in theory, so is Christianity (though “salvation” is personal and not corporate) but I’ve gotten just too “strange” to fit into anybody’s community, at least for more than a tiny march of days. Not only that, but I have to consider how my joining any particular community would affect my family. My being married to a Jewish woman, and being dedicated to ensuring the safety of her being a Jew takes an obvious toll on my being a Christian. She can tolerate my meeting with a couple of guys once a week, but church would be pushing the envelope a little too hard…for the both of us.

So I have a mystery and no answers. While I share my perspectives with the Internet, it’s a wholly impersonal environment. People respond to me, but it’s “virtual” and only on rare and brief occasions does the virtual transcend into reality.

I know what I’m writing has virtually no connection to Chukat, but this is who I am and where I am right now. How about we finish the story as told by Rabbi Tauber and see what turns up.

A small lamp was the only source of light in the smoke-filled room, so it took some time until the child was identified as the Rebbe’s grandson, little Menachem Mendel.

For some weeks now, the child had discovered that he could hear his grandfather’s words through the thin wall of the stove. Every Friday night he would clamber deep into the large stove, and listen to the profound and lofty words of the Rebbe’s teachings. And now, because of the bitter cold, his listening post had been discovered.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s daughter-in-law, Rebbetzin Sheina, who was present at the time, related:

“When they pulled the child out of the stove, he was paralyzed with fright. My mother-in-law, Rebbetzin Sterna, cried to my father-in-law, the Rebbe: ‘See what could of happened! A tragedy! Strangers you allow to enter, but when your own child begged you, you wouldn’t let him in!’ Father-in-law replied: ‘Sha, sha. Moses reached Mount Sinai only by beholding fire – only then did he merit that the Torah be given through him. Torah is acquired only through self-sacrifice.’ “

One way to deal with not fitting in is to have the chutzpah to fit in anyway. In little Menachem Mendel’s case, he fit himself into a stove, but unfortunately, he didn’t anticipate that on a cold night, he could end up being part of the fuel used to warm the room. Rabbi Tauber relates a childish error in judgment to the willingness to die for the sake of Torah learning, but clearly in the real world, the little boy wasn’t willing to burn nor were his elders willing to incinerate him for the Torah’s sake. The real lesson (at least according to the Rebbetzin, since the Rebbe disagreed) is that if someone wants in badly enough and they show a willingness to make sacrifices, you should let them in.

That doesn’t really work in my case since I’ll never be Jewish enough (or rather, I’ll never be a Jew at all) to learn as a Jew and I’ll never be Christian enough to fit into the church culture. I don’t know what I’d have to be to fit in with my wife religiously. I don’t think there is an answer to that one except, as I said before, to be a “low profile Christian at home.”

But what about God? I guess I can be a Christian at home in terms of behaviorally displaying my morals and ethics without being overtly “Christian” (openly praying or invoking Christ’s name, for example). In this case, chutzpah won’t get me anywhere except in hot water, so I’ve nowhere else to go except into the privacy of my own thoughts, which gets turned into very public blog posts…and to turn to God.

I’m seeking out a greater imagination, but I’m putting some pretty harsh limits on it.

Solomon couldn’t comprehend the mitzvah of the Red Heifer and I can’t comprehend my own existence. If God didn’t require that Solomon understand, I guess I don’t have to, either. I can only continue living and to see what happens next.

The irony is that I don’t know what to do, and yet I feel as if God is waiting for me to make the next move. I guess that’s what faith is…acknowledging God and proceeding forward, even when it doesn’t make sense, for what alternative do we have?

Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,
as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
when your fathers put me to the test
and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.
For forty years I loathed that generation
and said, “They are a people who go astray in their heart,
and they have not known my ways.”
Therefore I swore in my wrath,
“They shall not enter my rest.” –Psalm 95:7-11 (ESV)

Good Shabbos.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.