As those who see me regularly at the JCC gym or in my ‘civvies’ can attest, I am a fan of the snarky T-shirt. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I enjoy my vintage nerd t-shirts as much as the next Gen X-er, with Star Wars and Marvel Secret Wars shirts pulled out for special occasions. But it is the ones with text-based silliness that make me the happiest; T-shirts that say, for example, “White Text on a Black Shirt”. Then there’s my “Rabbi-Ninja” shirt, of course. Or Debra Steinberg’s favorite: the one that looks like an old Apple query box that asks “would you like to destroy the universe?” with “OK” highlighted, ready to be clicked on with an imaginary mouse. Or “Republicans for Voldemort” for you Harry Potter fans (and those who aren’t can ask those who are). I have yet to get the T Shirt of ultimate disambiguation (it says “NO”) but it’s on the list. My latest and most favorite shirt at the moment, however, reads “Non Flammable? Challenge Accepted.”
I love this shirt, not only for its adolescent bravado and promise of pyrotechnics—although that’s good too. I love it because there is a deeper meaning to the shirt as well. In our tradition there is a word—‘farbrent’, literally on fire, and to be called farbrenta is to be passionate, in Hebrew, Kanah. Fire is often used by the Chasidic writers to indicate passion, but not just for any thing or person. It means, for them, passion for God, for holiness, for that pure, unadulterated joy that comes from deep connection to the spiritual and living that connection in everyday life. And this week, we read of people who were full of that passion: the nazir. Nazirites, if you recall, were people who pledged to take on extra restrictions and responsibilities for a set period of time—a year, for example—out of their piety. As a sign of their status, they were to wear their hair long, and refrain from drinking alcohol, and avoid contact with the dead. They are to be, as the text says, holy to God.
Often we look askance at the passionate person, much as we look askance at the person cackling while holding the book of matches. Kanah, of course, also means ‘zealous’, and we have no stomach for zealots. After all, as Winston Churchill wrote, they can’t change their mind and won’t change the subject. But for the Chasids, passion, fire, was a sign of piety, a sign that you took God—and God’s world—seriously. Not dourly, mind you: taking God’s world seriously means taking everything in full measure, including happiness, love, delight, celebration. And so if you could inspire that burning, that yearning, that fire in someone else, if you could encourage another to be passionate, encourage another to be holy to God, then you were a successful Chasid indeed.
And so this T-shirt I see as not just a challenge to see if I can light the tablecloth on fire (which a confirmation student did one year, don’t ask). Rather, it’s a call to light people’s hearts on fire, to encourage them to be holy for God.
And why not? It seems to me that so many of us strive to keep our hearts non-flammable. We resist moments of emotion, of connection, calling them ‘sentimental’, or knowingly resort to humor to dampen any perceived enthusiasm. We have been fooled too many times, watched too many heroes fall, gotten our hopes up only to have them dashed to the ground. As the Who sings famously: We won’t be fooled again.
And yet…when we do that, when we damp down the fires in our hearts, when we leave them cold to the warmth of prayer, of compassion, of connection to our fellow person, really we cheat ourselves out of the opportunity to warm others, to repair God’s world, to fulfill our nature as God’s creatures! We yearn for warmth and closeness, and can’t helped but be moved when we encounter real connection with another. And if you don’t believe me, hold the hand of another person, even for a minute, and tell me you don’t feel something. God wants us to be farbrenta for each other, and when we let cynicism enter our hearts instead, we put out the fires, and leave ourselves and each other, in the words of Ruth Brin, craven and cold.
But, I can hear you say, it’s just a silly T-shirt! You’re making something out of nothing! Perhaps, but I would argue that Torah is where you find it, and that seeking, that yearning, requires us burn with love for one another and bring each other into the light—the warmth—of compassion and care. Would that we all sought to light on another’s’ hearts on fire, to walk by the light of our God. That is our challenge. Challenge, God willing, accepted. Amen.