Three men came to the angel of fire and asked him to entrust them with his most precious possession, the white fire. The angel gave it to them with the instruction, “Keep it well and use it wisely.” Thereupon, the three joyous men departed, each to his own home.
The first one walked into a dark valley where people were groping in total blackness. On all sides, he heard their cries of anguish, “If only someone would bring light and liberate us from this dark prison.” The man, deeply moved by their cries, and with the fire which the angel had given him, kindled wood and made a huge fire which led them out of the darkness toward the light of the sun.
The second man’s journey took him to a snowcapped mountain where people were freezing. He was so moved by their plight that he used the fire which the angel had given him to light a fire to provide warmth for the people. The third man thought, “How can I keep my fire safe so that the winds will not blow it out nor the rains extinguish it? I will hide it within my heart where no harm can come to it.”
When the three men returned from their journeys and appeared before the angel of fire, the angel asked each in turn, “How did you use my gift?” The first on answered that he made a light for the distressed people in darkness. Thereupon, the angel said, “Your fire will never burn out.” The second man replied that by the fire he saved people from freezing to death. “You fire, too, will never burn out,” said the angel. The third one said, “I have brought my fire safely to the end of the journey. So, it is hidden in my heart.” “Oh, poor man,” exclaimed the angel, as he showed him that the fire had gone out. “My white fire can live only when it is used and shared with others.”
When we return the Torah to the ark we sing, “עץ חיים היא…” “It is a Tree of Life for those who cling to it … Renew our days as of old. There are some very moving tunes for this but what does it really mean? How can we renew our days by clinging to the Torah? And how is the Torah a Tree of Life?
Let’s examine with the metaphor of the Torah as a Tree of Life. A tree needs fresh air and sunlight and so does the Torah. As with the white fire, the Torah must be used and shared with others. Just as a tree needs care, so does the Torah. A tree has sturdy roots, as does the Torah. Our ancestors have passed it down to us. Trees also last eternally. It continues to bear fruit year after year. In order for the Torah to continue to bear fruit, it must be passed on to our children.
In this week’s parasha, VaYehi, Jacob brings his sons together before his death saying, “Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you that which will happen to you in the days to come.” He then speaks to each son in turn, giving them each a blessing for the future. Jacob has a very personal relationship with God and wants his children to carry on that relationship.
Jacob’s desire to pass on his relationship with God can best be explained through the following story which also explains the three paragraphs of the Shema. At the end of his life, Jacob wants to ensure that his children maintain the relationship with God that he and his ancestors have enjoyed. He gathers them together and says to the “You must love God …” thereby reciting the first paragraph of the Shema. He continues, by explaining the blessings for obeying God and the curses for disobeying. This is the second paragraph of the Shema. Finally, he recites the third paragraph telling his children to remember the commandments by tying tzitzit onto their garments. The sons respond in unison, “Hear, Israel (another name for Jacob), Adonai is our God, Adonai is One.” Jacob, thereby, blesses his children with their relationship with God which continues to this day.
A powerful custom has become popular at a Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony. The parents and grandparents are invited onto the bimah and the Torah is passed from grandparent to parent to child. When I see this, I feel the entirety of our tradition passing from our ancestors to us. The message is that Torah, in its largest meaning, is passed from generation to generation, mi’dor l’dor. Just as Jacob passed on his relationship with God to his children, we are charged with passing our relationship on to our children.
The prayer, Eitz Hayyim tells us that we must cling to the Torah. This means action. The Torah, the prayer promises, “renews our days” when we use the lessons found in it. The Rabbis teach, “Great is the teaching of Torah, for the teaching leads to action. In other words, Torah is not measured by one’s knowledge but by how one turns the knowledge into action. We are obligated to use what we learn to help finish the work of creation and help make this world a better place for all.
This is the lesson that must be passed on to the next generation. In order for the Torah to be a Tree of Life, one needs to cling to it and use what we learn to help God in repairing the world, tikkun olam. The world will then be renewed to the ideal of the Garden of Eden by hastening the coming of the Messiah.