In this week of Lag B’Omer, when bonfires are lit all over the world, I am struck by the recent news that Israel has just launched a military defense training program called Operation Chariots of Fire. This intrigued me in many ways. One is the reference to the Oscar winning film called “Chariots of Fire.”
Many of you know that the allusion of the title, Chariots of Fire, relate to Eliyahu HaNavi, Elijah the prophet, ascending to heaven in a chariot of fire, as he was leaving this world. So why the connection to this film? I suppose it’s because the primary stars can run like the wind…or like the spread of fire! Both stars of this film based on real life, one, a secular Jew named Harold Abrahams, and the other a Catholic priest named Eric Liddell, are driven by their respective fiery causes and not just their physical ability. But aside from their passion for running, they have very different personalities.
Let’s look at some relevant scenes and quotes from the film that illustrate their differences. From the priest, Eric Liddell who refused to play on Sunday: “Sabbath is the Lord’s; I intend to keep it that way.”
And in refusing to give in to the Prince of Wales who wants him to play on Sunday: “The impertinence lies, sir, with those who seek to influence a man to deny his beliefs.”
Regarding his own inner drive: “Where does power come from to see the race to the end? From within.”
And: “I believe G-d made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.”
In contrast, a few quotes from Abrahams: “I don’t know what I’m chasing.”
“I know the fear of losing but now I am almost too frightened to win.”
“Ten lonely seconds to justify my whole existence, but will I?”
“I’m more of an addict. It’s a compulsion with me, a weapon I can use. Against what? Being Jewish I suppose.”
And to Harold’s close friend Aubrey: “Contentment-that is your secret. I am twenty-four and I have never known it. I’m forever in pursuit and I don’t even know what I’m chasing.”
With just these few quotes you can hear the divergent voices of these two, one expressing clarity and determination and the other self-doubt and uncertainty.
I was kind of wishing that it was Harold Abrahams who, like Sandy Koufax or Hank Greenberg, wore their Judaism more openly and sincerely as did Eric Liddell who proclaimed his faith by refusing to run on Sunday. But I suppose in his own way Abrahams was trying to prove his worth in the world as a Jew, by being the outstanding runner that he was. After all, there were a plethora of responses from Englishmen in the film when they heard his last name, and not all of them were positive. So Harold could have changed his last name, and even shortened it to ‘Abrams,’ but he did not try to hide his ethnicity. Maybe he even used his running prowess to prove that Jews could achieve excellence in the eyes of the world.
Thus we could say that Abrahams expresses his Yiddishkeit with his own kind of spiritual fortitude. Remember that Rabbi Akiva’s students who perished during the Counting of the Omer are faulted in the Talmud for not respecting each other. So the fact that in the film, Eric and Howard end up with a peaceful resolution, and even friendship, can be considered a fixing of the kind of interpersonal conflict that led to Rabbi Akiva’s students’ death. And maybe this is how the title of “Chariots of Fire” also relates to Lag B’Omer.
Lag B’Omer is the yahrzeit of one of the most prominent rabbis in the Talmud, and perhaps its greatest mystic, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, known as the Rashbi. One could say that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai also raced to reach realms of holiness that had not been reached till his time. And that is saying a lot, because the Talmud tells us that a predecessor, Hillel, had eighty students who could perform miracles and knew the languages of animals and trees etc. The least of these sages was Rabbi Yonatan Ben Uziel, in front of whom, if a bird got too close, it would get singed. One of the commentators somewhat jestingly asks, “if that’s what happened to the least of them, what happened to a bird who ventured near the greatest ones?” One answer was that the bird did NOT get burned.
You might think someone as holy as Rabbi Shimon might, like Elijah the prophet, ascend to the highest realms of heaven and not return. But we know that when the Rashbi came out of his cave after 13 years, he saw a man running on erev Shabbos with two myrtle branches, and he realized how valuable the material world was for the service of G-d. In fact, in one of his many ecstatic quotes in the Zohar, he actually kissed the earth in an outburst of passion, exclaiming, “Earth earth, I have pursued after you from the first moments of my existence, and not realized your significance till now.” He said this after the ‘grand master’ of the heavenly Torah academy descended to visit him and conveyed a vital teaching: “a piece of wood that can’t catch on fire, is poked until it lights up, and a person who can’t feel holiness is nudged until opened up and made receptive to divinity.”
Elijah too did not remain in heaven forever, but comes to visit this earthly plane to help people in trouble. In his case, when he left the world in a chariot of fire, it was fire that detached his soul from his body, but when he returns to earth, perhaps like on a fireman’s pole, he slides back into his body, or else, as on special occasions like Pesach and circumcisions his spirit descends to visit our world.
Though fire can separate spirit and matter, in the course of a mitzvah, it can also reconnect the two. Thus when a woman lights candles before Shabbat and holidays, she is drawing down the most ethereal aspects of existence into the most physical parts of earth. So we are taught that during Sarah’s lifetime, the candle she lit on Friday continued to burn – like the Western light in the holy Temple and like the miracle of Hanukkah – into the six days of the week.
Another relevant fire context in the Torah is when G-d appears to Moshe in the burning bush. He sees there a fire which is not consuming the bush. The bush remains intact and is therefore a vessel for the light of unity which does not destroy but rather allows creation to continue to exist – not like how the Rashbi and his son first reacted when they left the cave after twelve years and had to go back for another year to understand that heaven and earth are meant to work in harmony.
The mystics tell us that there is an original light from the first day of creation that permeates everything in a mostly hidden way, but makes ‘guest appearances’ throughout history, such as in the burning bush and the light of Hanukah, and in the deepest secrets of the Torah, and even in the bonfires of Lag B’Omer.
And this is what the Rashbi accomplished – he took the most inner, exalted light and fire of Torah and brought it down into the most corporeal planes of existence. In our times, when bonfires are lit, and so many people from all walks of life and degrees of religious belief and practice come together to dance and rejoice, this too is a concrete expression of the unity that the persona of the Rashbi brought into this world, and all the worlds.
So why a bonfire rather than a candle, which is the traditional commemoration of a yahrzeit? When else do we light something with multiple wicks? At Havdalah when we are meant to bring the singular light of Shabbat into the world. As the Midrash explains, at the end of the first Shabbat, when darkness came into the world, Adam was afraid the world would disappear. Then G-d showed him two stones which he could rub together to produce fire and light! This origin story is a striking contrast with the source of the Olympics, where on mount Olympus fire had to be ‘stolen from the gods,’ in order for humanity to progress!
Here is a quote from the Zohar about the day that Rabbi Shimon left this world: “On the day that Rabbi Shimon was to depart this world, while he was arranging his affairs, the companions assembled at his house… Rabbi Shimon said: “Now is a time of favor. I wish to enter without shame into the world that is coming. I want to reveal holy words, until now unrevealed, in the presence of the Shechinah, so it will not be said that I left the world deficiently. Until now they were hidden in my heart that I may ascend to the world that is coming.” The common factor of all these fire images is the idea that within the soul burns what I like to call the pilot light of fire, a holy light that can often manifest on the surface but even when the external fire is hidden or extinguished, is still said to be present in its absence. However, at certain times and places, that dormant light can burst forth with a power that can transform even the darkest situations and illuminate the entire universe with that ‘Ohr Haganuz,’ the hidden light from the beginning of creation. When that happens, we can indeed have our feet on the earth but still fly like the wind in “Chariots of Fire.”