Like Coals of Fire

Today I’ve been lax. I just haven’t had the energy to do anything. Not that I’ve been sleeping too restfully, though. Why is it when I yearn for sleep most my dreams keep me awake? Perhaps I’m more stressed from the prospect of school starting on Monday than I had imagined.

In any case, our time here is beginning to close. With the passing of one narrative births another, and only seven teachings remain.

2.15 Each of the disciples taught three things.

Rabbi Eliezer taught:

Cherish your colleague’s honor as your own;
Be not easily provoked to anger;
Repent one day before your death.

(He is also quoted as saying: Warm yourself at the fire of the scholars, but be wary of their glowing coals lest you be burnt. Their bite is that of a fox; their sting that of a scorpion; their hiss that of a serpent–indeed, all their teachings are like live coals of fire.)

The first three can go without saying. Treat others how you wish to be treated. Take a deep breath. Say you’re sorry. It’s all things my mother taught me, and surely things other children have been taught throughout their childhoods, too. What interests me is not the teaching itself, but the notes at the end.

Coals of fire… What could that mean?

I recently finished reading “As a Driven Leaf” by Milton Steinberg. The story, reminding me greatly of all my lessons in Israel on similar issues of history, evokes images of an ancient world, an ancient populace, what life was like long before our modern era set in. It was beautifully written, crafted with delicate care, and someday I know I shall read the story again.

The theme of the piece is doubt. Certainty. The intersection of faith and reason. It resonates well with all I think myself, about fear and reality, about if we can ever truly know or be certain. The conclusion left me empty inside, not for lack of a climax, but for the cold realization it granted. It brought to mind things I had not before considered; it brought into question everything I’ve ever believed. And that, that is the sign of a great book.

Why do I mention it? Because in these few words I saw the entire life of Elisha ben Abuyah, the novel’s protagonist. He is raised one way, then raised another; all throughout, he strives only to learn, and to learn, and to learn some more. He sits himself at the fire of the scholars, of all the scholars of the world, and he basks in their flames. But, I fear, he never stood wary of the coals.

There is a wonderment in learning that I have always adored. The excitement of a new trivial bit of knowledge is cunning in how it pervades itself into everything you think of–how in those few days following even the smallest intellectual revelation, you see the answers everywhere, and must ponder, how did I not see this any sooner? Yet for every question answered, our curiosity is piqued higher, we seek more questions, and the whole begins again.

What is meant of this? A broadening base of knowledge? A growth of intellect inspired by passion and driven by desire? I do not know, either in simple form or a form too articulate to make sense of.

One of my biggest fears, and I believe I’ve mentioned this elsewhere, is that all of the time and effort and stress I’ve been putting into my education won’t be worth it in the end. I fear, you could say, that I have set myself so close to this fire that I’m now in the flames. Is this the lack of energy I’ve met with today? I have foreseen the learning soon to be done and already it has burnt me out?

I can’t imagine a life wherein nothing is limitless. I believe, for I must believe, that everything will work out in the end, that everything is exactly how it is meant to be. To admit my doubt would be as crushing to me as Elisha’s revelations were to him–and as the back cover explicitly explains, they tear him not from one world, but from two! Yet we do doubt. It is the shadow cast by the flames so near that cause us to doubt in the first place.

For, I say, without knowledge to shed light upon those areas of belief too weak to be solid that we begin, in this deluge of brightness, to see through them, how would we ever know our world is not flat? That the sun does not revolve around the earth? That bacteria are the causes of illness? Yet as much as this light leads us to greater realizations, the bane of this is sometimes too startling to feel.

I watched Discovery’s new show Curiosity last week and it spoke about Stephen Hawking’s one book in which he states that the wholeness of science discredits the need for God. I won’t deny this. If I could live without faith in something, I most likely would. But I feel lacking the need for gods does not negate the possibility of there actually being one. So science, for all my faith in it, has done nothing to uproot my faith in God. Yet, if I let it, the evidence is unnerving… How in only a few verses of physics, religion can be unwritten for eternity…

Is there such a thing as too much learning? Does there come a time when we have grown so astute in our areas of expertise that what we had believed would help us only hinders us? If there were any money in being a professional student, I’d be one, but would a pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowing everything truly get me anywhere?

These are questions for which I do not have the answers, but for the sake of rhetoric and my own peace of mind, I must ask them.

Why would a rabbi, so keen to spread his love of Torah and his belief in God, tell us that rabbinic teachings are like live coals of fire? Does he want his followers to look on in reverence at his words, but not inspect them too closely for the holes in logic they possess? Is he perhaps afraid that his own belief is so precariously balanced upon precedents and exegesis that he fears the slightest touch of another opinion could tear apart his entire existence?

This much I do not know. This much I might never know.

I ask further: In a world where the most accessible truths are hidden deep in the worlds of scientific observations and mathematical calculations, where are we to find with faith those most meaningful truths that trump even these? Should we doubt, for the clarity a quest for answers might gain us if we can skirt insanity along the way, or should we abandon all doubt for blind faith, understanding everything we know is somewhere stationed upon unprovable idioms of popularly accepted facts and that to give in to doubt can more quickly throw us into an abyss than save us from the same?

I do not know. I sequester these questions to you. Do you?


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