• Rabbi Jodie Gordon

A World on fire, a world illuminated

This week in our Torah portion, Avram appears in a moment of unexplained chosenness--- the one to whom God directs those famous words:

Lech l’cha-

M’artzcha

Mi molad’tcha

Mi beit avicha-

Get going- God says. Go forth---

Leave your land,

Leave your birthplace,

Go from the place of your ancestors, and go to this land that I will show you.

For those who have been following along in our Torah up until this point, it wouldn’t be unfair to wonder “Avram who?”

And the rabbis want to explain who he is---the story of Abraham marks the beginning of the world that we inhabit---- ending the prehistory of our people, the fits and starts of Creation, Adam and Eve, and Noah and the flood.

And so the rabbis offer this midrash:

There once was a man on a journey who came across a bira doleket--- bira, meaning “palace” and doleket meaning “on fire”. He looked around, trying to find help to put out the blaze. He wondered, surely there must be someone who owns this palace, someone who cares for it.

The man calls out: “is there anyone there? Is anyone responsible for this palace?”

“Is it possible that this palace has no caretaker?!”

At that moment, the owner of the palace peeks out and reveals himself.

Similarly the midrash concludes: Avram said, “Is it possible that this world has no one to look after it? And then God peeks out and says: Lech Lecha, Go forth.[1]

***

This midrash is born of the rabbis needing to explain where Avram came from in the first place.

It is not inconsequential that this midrash casts Avram as a man on a journey--- a man who looks up, and really sees the world as it is: as a bira doleket: a palace on fire.

And like that man on a journey, who happens upon a palace aglow with flames, when asked “Who is responsible- is this a palace without a master?”--- God calls out “It’s me. Now go forth- and be a blessing.”

It’s a story that casts our patriarch Avram as a wanderer: a man without a home, a man who is place-less and searching. And yet, we know- (in fact, it’s among the very first things we know about Avram) he does have a home; he has a land, and a birthplace, and connections to the story of his ancestors.

When he notices that the palace is on fire, he is called into relationship with God.

***

“On fire” is a powerful metaphor for our world right now.

Sparks of discord combust into violent, fiery flames.

The embers of injustice feed on the oxygen of fear and mistrust.

The image of fire feels fitting, as we watch a public health crisis burn through our world, left unchecked, spreading wildly.

And frankly--- “on fire” is more than a metaphor: it’s a reality for so many who live in the path of devastating wildfires, spreading faster and more furiously each year up and down the West Coast.

And we look at this fire, and wonder: whose palace is this? Is anyone in charge here?

The thing with this story is that the rabbis were themselves masters of metaphor- and that palace on fire wasn't actually a palace, but that bira doleket was always the world itself.

The rabbis, in seeking to explain who Avram is, create a problem that once noticed, cannot be ignored.

And then, suddenly, once Avram notices, God invites Avram into relationship--- calling him closer to that divine place we call HaMakom. In this midrash, I am reminded of how much “place” matters: that wonderful Hebrew word makom is not only one of the names we give to God, but also literally means place. And what does God do in calling Avram forth? God tells him to leave the other mikomot-- the other places that he had once called home.

***

And then we have the metaphor of a burning palace--- that image of a palace resonates for me in this moment, because thinking about the world before now--- the world of my adolescence, and my early adulthood--- there was a sense of palatialness-

We had made so much progress!

We believed in science-- we believed our actions impacted our world and the people around us.

Humanity was progressing along that long arc that bends toward justice.

And then- in these last few years, and now:

habira doleket, the palace is on fire.

And I know for me, and many others--- I have felt like Abraham, looking around and wondering- is anyone in charge here? Can someone be in charge? Perhaps there’s someone who can save us, who can help us put out the fire?

Tonight, in this tender moment in our nations’ history---it certainly might feel like the palace is burning. And that can be quite scary. We think of fire as a destructive, consuming force.

What else do we know about fires?

We know they require oxygen.

We know they grow even more fierce, with the addition of an accelerant.

We also know that eventually, fires burn out. With the exception of that Ner Tamid, that Eternal Flame, fires are not meant to last forever.

And so perhaps, another way that we might see that bira doleket:

Another Abraham--Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, reads “doleket” not as “on fire”, but rather, as “illuminated”.

Ha'bira doleket: the palace was illuminated.

Aglow with flames, that man was able to truly see it: to see it’s scaffolding and it’s foundation--- and to call out “Who is responsible?”

For me- in this moment, that’s the understanding I want to hold to.

That this world on fire can be a world that is illuminated.

Illuminated now,

we can see that the palace wasn’t perhaps as palatial for everyone as it was for us;

illuminated now,

we can see that the foundation was faulty and some of the scaffolding was rotting.

We are living in a moment of intense illumination: of seeing starkly, the reality of what our world looks like.

And so if the palace is not simply on fire, but also illuminated, then how will we see ourselves when the light shines upon us? What are we going to learn from this?

Fires burn out. We know this.

And when it does: when finally the oxygen runs out, and God willing, we learn to stop throwing accelerants on the flames--- what will we rebuild out of those ashes?

That is the spiritual challenge of this moment: how to see ourselves like Avram--- one who notices the bira doleket, and implicates ourselves, making ourselves responsible. With God’s call--- Lech L’cha, we are called to action, to putting out the fire. I think of the words of Cornel West who said: “Be prepared to enter the conversation, and be prepared to be changed by it.”

I am heartened by seeing how many of you--- how many of us have already entered the conversation and been changed; by how many of us already noticed the burning palace, and allowed that truth to illuminate our actions by making ourselves of service to others and to God by our own right action.

***

There is of course one other characteristic about fire that is worth mentioning: fire is also purifying; fires clear the way for new growth. My prayer tonight is that somehow out of this fire, that which needed to burn down won’t rise again out of the ashes, and we’ll be able to build a better palace


May we each merit to see a world in which that bira doleket--- the illuminated, burning palace becomes the place where a new house may be built: a house where we may hear the whisper of that still small voice, calling us to keep going forward.

[1] Bereshit Rabbah 29a

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