Shaya Cohen -


A Fire-Centric Short History of the World

Let’s posit that a Clockmaker G-d created the entire natural world, wound it up, and let it go. By itself, though, Planet Earth is pretty predictable and cyclical – even repetitive. Since the Clockmaker built the world, nothing comes as a surprise; it ends up being pretty boring.

So G-d creates change agents, independent creatures infused with a divine spirit. These agents (we’ll call ourselves “people”) come from G-d and are potentially very powerful, indeed. Alas, we barely scratch the surface of our potential.

Instead, people focus on existence within nature. We are quick learners, so even though we enter the world naked of the survival instincts native to every other species, we end up as the true king of beasts as well as the plant kingdom. We study stars and the weather, tides and currents. Even though people are able to develop language and advanced conceptual thought, it is through manipulating and leveraging the natural world that we find a way to survive and even prosper. Despite all of the mental and spiritual potential we possess, understanding and working within the natural world is what mankind does best of all. We achieve this ability, and then level out

The Clockmaker, of whom we may have known once, fades into myth and then beyond into obscurity. Nature is so much more tangible, so much more clearly connected to our everyday lives than a mere incorporeal notion.

The Clockmaker is not satisfied with the state of play. He is “a jealous god,” and frankly is not pleased that the creatures made in His own image have entirely missed the plot, worshipping nature instead of its creator. G-d is not in nature. He made it, this incredibly complex world in which we live, but He is not within it. But Ancient Man misses this crucial distinction, just as we misunderstand our own role and potential – instead of being natural beings, we are supposed to aspire to being more like G-d Himself.

People were created able to do what G-d has done: create entirely new things, ideas and words and tools that never existed before. In theory. In practice, the world is stuck in a rut in every sense of the word: from technology to philosophy to language. We are tuned to harmonizing with nature, but not to elevating or improving it. We have settled, and are not reaching.

G-d decides that He needs to get mankind’s attention. To do that, He must do something that man would recognize is outside of nature, something that anyone would know is unnatural. The Clockmaker suspends the natural world and performs a miracle: he presents Moshe with the burning bush. It is a conceptual challenge: what if there is something more than what I thought there was?

It works. Though only a small miracle in the scheme of things, the bush grabs Moses’ attention: the bush burns, but is not consumed. Moses realizes that there is something more powerful than nature, that nature can be suspended or altered.

This kicks off a conversation between the Clockmaker and a single man about the origins of the world and Moses’ intended role in changing the entire direction of history. It all starts with just one man, confronted by the newfound knowledge that nature is not the supreme force in the world.

The burning bush seems like a one-off event. But it is not. It connects to the rest of the Torah. Before the episode of the burning bush, the word for “fire” is found first describing in divine actions (Covenant @ Gen 15:17, Sodom @ Gen. 19:24). Fire is what the Clockmaker uses to interfere with nature, and he teaches us to do likewise with sacrifices (which involve elevating nature to connect with G-d), as well as with the Menorah the candelabra that is described in botanical terms – and, like the bush, burns without being consumed.

But the burning bush also answers a very common question: Over a year later, after the Exodus from Egypt, after the Ten Commandments are handed down, and after the instructions for the building of the Tabernacle are given, G-d issues an odd commandment: “You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the Sabbath day.” (Ex. 35:3)

Here is that common question: Considering all the things that are forbidden Sabbath “work” in Judaism (The 39 categories are listed and summarized here), why is kindling a fire the only one named, seemingly hanging out there, entirely out of context? It reads like an orphan. Why is kindling fire the only commandment given here?

The answer is quite a cool one, and it is found by looking at the language itself. The text does not really say “kindle a fire” – it uses the verb form of the word “flame” and the word for “fire”. Indeed, the two words are found paired only one other place in the Torah: the burning bush. Which means that they are connected, that we can use the bush to understand why the commandments for the Sabbath day are somehow summarized using the single “do not kindle a fire” injunction.

If we consider that the bush was G-d’s way of showing mastery over and control of nature, then we can understand that when we emulate G-d by building fire then we are doing, in our own way, what G-d did when He worked for 6 days to create the world. G-d the Clockmaker made the clock that is the world. He was the maker of it all.

So when we use fire, we, too, are showing mastery over the natural world. This is something we are indeed commanded to do! The Torah makes it explicit that we are to be the people who do not merely harmonize with nature, living as the well-adapted kings of the natural world that we were in fruitful Ancient Egypt and Babylon. Instead, we are to be as G-d is: the masters of nature, both responsible for it, as well as of improving it, making ourselves and everything around us holy. Israel is contrasted with Egypt dozens of times in the Torah for this very reason: we are to go in a different direction.

But on the 7th day he rested. He no longer acted with supremacy. On that day, G-d did not do any of the things symbolically connected with the burning bush. So when the very same word pair (“Boe-her ba’eish”) is used to describe Shabbos, we are to understand the symbolism writ large: on the Sabbath day we back off.

Six days we are to work – to improve the natural world, to create and destroy, to emulate G-d in the six days of creation. And on the 7th day we are supposed to rest as G-d rested – to refrain from any further manipulation of the natural world. We leave the physical world on autopilot, the way the Clockmaker made it.

Forbidding “kindling fire” on the Sabbath day tells us that this is the one day during which we are forbidden to imitate G-d’s command over nature. This is the one day in the week, when we do not do all of those things that shows our control over the natural world. If we spend six days working, then one day we let nature runs its course. This one commandment symbolically applies to ALL the commandments for Shabbos. Every other forbidden work (all 39 Melachos) on Shabbos boils down to the symbolism of kindling fire.

Comments are welcome!

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