My son pulled me up short in the kitchen one afternoon this week. “So, Abba, I’m curious: What are your goals for the rest of your life?”
It’s been a while since someone has asked me a question like that. I wasn’t prepared to answer. I thought for a moment and stumbled through some goals that had to do with work (professional life being the go-to default for many Americans when it comes to talking about our lives). I told him I wanted to be able to leave him and his brothers some financial inheritance. I said I’d like to write another book or two. But I confessed that, at 47 and still in the midst of parenting, caring for an aging parent, and holding significant professional responsibilities, my focus has been trained on the big roles I occupy in the lives of others, and I haven’t thought too much about my goals beyond this stage. So I struggled with the question, and it has been lingering with me ever since.
When I was a Hillel rabbi, I used to ask young people (who were the age my son is now) questions like these. Even at a younger age, the tension between passion and stability, spontaneity and order, is a prominent one. Often those coffee dates or walks through the campus would include my reciting a favorite line: “You’re paying a fortune for this experience. If it doesn’t prompt at least one identity crisis during your four years, you should ask for your money back.”
When she was Dean, my former colleague at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Margaret Mitchell, invoked the phrase “playing with fire” to describe the study of religion. “Playing with fire is not something to be avoided,” she wrote, “but something to learn how to do with skill, competence, awareness of how things can go wrong, and boldness born of a conviction that it is worse to either avoid this fire or leave it to those who may not handle it in a responsible way.” She went on:
Those who are trained in the science and art of fire management know that fire avoided by the neglectful or fearful, or harnessed by the malevolent can do incalculable harm. They know one should not just play with fire, but work with fire, do so in an open field, put rocks around it, teach children how to do the same. They also know that fire, left unchecked or ignored, will carve its own, unregulated path; if it does go out (seemingly), it will likely go underground, to surface later in unexpected ways. As a practical matter, the fire will not die; as an evaluative one, many (though not all) would say that fire (appropriately harnessed), is essential to human flourishing—a source of warmth and light, and a locus of companionship.
Parashat Korach is suffused with the tensions of playing with fire—literally and metaphorically. Fire is central to the offering that Korach brings—it is ordered and contained; yet it is fire that consumes them (Num. 16:35)—wild and untamed. When a plague breaks out among the people, Moses instructs Aaron to take his firepan and make a fire of incense on it in order to stop the suffering (17:11)—using fire as a means of controlling the uncontrolled. The first of the special gifts enumerated for the priests are those which are “the most holy, the offerings by fire” (18:9), gesturing at the interplay between this force—fire—that both elevates and decimates, makes civilized and holy and makes dead and desolate at the same time.
The word for person in Hebrew, ish (male) or isha (feminine), is made up of the letters aleph and shin—the letters that spell eish, or fire—with the addition of the letter yod (ish) or hey (isha). Those extra letters, of course, are letters of the name of the Ineffable, as if to remind us that our lives, our very beings, are an amalgam of the potential of fire and the potential of the Creator: potentials for energy, heat, and light—and for untamed, uncontained, unconstrained motion. Order it too much and we risk snuffing out the fire; order it too little and we risk violence and chaos.
My son’s question to me in the kitchen this week feels like it poked at some embers that had, perhaps, become too controlled. (Don’t worry, I’m not contemplating anything crazy—though I did tell him I’m thinking about skydiving for my 50th birthday.) Yet our practices provide us regular invitations to check on our internal fire: Is it too hot or too cool; does it perhaps need more oxygen or fuel; is it at risk of running wild—might it need to? Our spiritual practices are here to help us ask those questions regularly, and to answer them mindfully and wisely.