enlightening through the darkness of fire

When I was at NYU I took a course in human innovation. The professor wanted us to pick out that technology which had the single biggest impact on human development. People threw out all kinds of answers, but he waited till we were done to shoot them all down. "Fire," he said conclusively, was the most profound invention that humanity had ever come up with. To this day, no other technology has spawned and affected such a technological boom as the discovery of fire.

I revisited this memory last week during my weekly hevrutah on Rebbe Natan's Likkutei Halachot. In the halachot pertaining to the washing of hands in the morning, he discusses the revellation of HaShem's hashgacha in the world. Night, he says, is the time of the strength of Hochmat haTeva -- aka human knowledge/science. This brought to mind other NYU memories where it became clear that all science grew out of astrology. Rebbe Natan as much as says it: At night, the stars are visible, so Hochmat HaTeva is at it's strongest. Everything about human knowledge covers up the reality that no matter how much it may seem we control this wild ( and mostly) untamed world, it is still all under divine supervision and intervention. Every step in human progress was intended and guided by God.

Day, on the other hand, is the revellation of God's supervision and influence in the world. When
we wash our hands in the morning, we are banishing the forces of this blinding human knowledge and returning to the reality of God's imminent influence in the world. He brings many many discussions and relationships to the forefront in his exposition on the nature of this mitzvah:

Kiddush haLevana: we are bound to the revellation of HaShem in the world, such that it is our job to reveal it, to recognize its presence. So, it is our job to watch for the new moon.

Tevilat Keilim: we are liberating some vessel from the realm of possession of the non-Jew, so we must pass the vessel through water, representing the idealogical--purifying the aspect that was tainted, since the vessel was merely 'possessed' - something that has little quantitative meaning, but significant intellectual/figurative meaning.

Hachsharat Keilim: unlike tevilah, if something has actually swallowed the forebidden into it's essence, like an implement used to cook, then it must be purified with fire

Pesah: the chametz is the hochmat haTeva, we must burn it away specifically with fire. The four cups of wine (a topic for a different post.)

and many other halachot/mitzvot that I don't remember by heart (it was almost a week ago)

Why the need for fire to purify the things which are clearly rooted in and related to Hochmat haTeva? (eg. non kosher vessels & Chametz)
Because fire is the root of Hochmat haTeva. Fire is darkness, hoshech. Isn't that sort of paradoxical? No, he explains that fire is the point at which the light is fleeing from the material. So fire, representing the flight of the light is associated with the darkness. Hochmat HaTeva, which drives out the light of God's divine presence in all worlds, is related to fire. What's the exact nature of the relationship? Fire is actually the root of Hochmat haTeva -- just as my college professor taught me. Why do we use fire to purify Hochmat HaTeva when it's at the height of it's strength? Because fire was given to man at the end of the first shabbat when he was expelled from Gan Eden. Even though, fire is something performed and created through the actions of man, it was given as a gift from God. So too, even the roots of human wisdom, Hochmat haTeva, seem to be the workings of man, but at their essence they are actually the gift of HaShem. (This is why we do havdallah with fire. At the moment when the most Godly revellation leaves the world (motzaei shabbat) that is the time when we praise HaShem through fire, recognizing that even in the strength of Hochmat haTeva, it is merely a different revellation of God in the world.)

My own two cents: Once we understand this idea, that human wisdom is as much a gift from God as fire is; we can then use it the same way, to exalt and purify the world around us, as a testament to God's supervision and influence in the world.


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