We’re in the month of Tammuz, the beginning of Summer. According to the
Kabbalists, each month in the Hebrew calendar has an energy associated with it and every season relates to one of the four elements—EARTH. AIR, WATER and FIRE. The energy of Tammuz is that of heat and expansion, and the element associated with it is FIRE. Think about the joy, fun and excitement of our childhood summers; feel the warmth of the heart-connection with a loved one, and you’ll have an embodied sense of the FIRE element.
FIRE, and the other three seasonal elements take us back to the very beginning of Genesis: the EARTH was void; a WIND swept over the WATER and there was light/FIRE. All of Creation was formed from these 4 elements.
So when I read the beginning of the parasha today, I was struck with how the ritual of the Red Heifer—and, in fact, all the sacrificial rites– incorporate these 4 elements: the cow is burned in FIRE, incense sweetens the AIR, the altar is STONE and the High Priest washes his garments and body in WATER. The 4 elements embedded in these rites helped the Israelites draw closer to G-d by catalyzing an embodied experience of the primordial Creation story.
What’s more, these 4 elements reappear throughout the parasha: Miriam and Aaron die and presumably are buried in the EARTH. The wells dry up and there is no WATER. The Israelites’ wailing fills the air and Moses in his FIREY impatience strikes the ROCK to bring forth WATER.
In Torah, FIRE manifests in both its life-affirming and destructive aspects. On the positive side we have Moses’ introduction to G-d at the burning bush; the pillar of FIRE that kept watch over the camp at night; the Aish Tamid, the FIRE that was kept burning on the altar to remind the Israelites of G-d’s presence. The Torah is even described as “white FIRE inscribed by black FIRE.” And we’re enjoined to study Torah “with FIRE,” with burning enthusiasm.
We also have examples of the negative consequences of unbridled fire: Aaron’s sons bringing “alien FIRE and are destroyed by it;” Korach from last week’s parasha and his followers are consumed by FIRE for challenging Moses’ leadership. Next week the 17 th of Tammuz commemorates the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem leading up to the destruction of the 2 nd temple on Tisha b’Av.
And in our contemporary world, we have wildfires, record heat waves, war and gun violence all around us.
So what can this teach us about how to thrive during the FIRE season? How to not “burnout” but rather profit from the life-affirming benefits of FIRE? Our sages’ advice aligns remarkably well with that of our wellness experts today. The Kabbalists counseled keeping all our G-d-given attributes in balance. Maimonides advocated “maintaining a healthy body is among the ways of G-d for it is impossible to know anything about the Creator if one is sick.” And Rebbe Nachman, putting our spiritual life first, instructs, “When summer
begins to approach, it is very good to meditate in the fields. Go to a grassy field, for the grass will awaken your heart.” So summer allows us to take advantage of all the things that nurture our body, mind and spirit while being in Nature: exercising, eating fresh healthy food, enjoying the arts, connecting with friends and with G-d.
Our parasha ends with the Israelites camped on the steppes of Moab. Moab calls to mind the Moabite Ruth whom we just studied on Shavuot. Ruth’s love for Naomi and Boaz’ compassion for Ruth remind us of the heart-opening power of appropriate FIRE.
There’s a line from Leviticus that instructs us in the role of Fire in our lives: Aish Tamid Tukad al HaMizbayach, Lo Tichbeh—keep the fire on the altar and the flame in our hearts burning at all times. This Summer energy can illuminate our lives and our hearts throughout the year!