I was born and raised in South Florida, and I went to college in Orlando, which means I spent a lot of my childhood and teenage years at theme parks. There was one roller coaster at Universal Islands of Adventure that used to be my favorite. It was called “Dueling Dragons”, and it was two separate coasters in one. When you were in line, there came a time where you needed to pick “fire or ice”, and that decision changed the theme of your queue for the rest of the wait, as well as determined which of the two coasters you went on. Everyone knew that “Fire” was the better one… but “Ice” was often the easier choice, since the line was shorter. Do you wait the extra time for the better ride, or do you take whatever you can get with the least amount of effort? Pick one.
In my high school and early college years, the title “Atheist” would have been a gross understatement. If you knew me then, or if you’ve heard me tell my whole, “How I got into this Judaism thing” story, you know I would have been better suited for the title “Devout Atheist.” Which makes about as little sense as you think it does. But I was quite sure of the infallibility of logic and reason, the pervasive wisdom of science, and the everlasting nature of the universe… On the other hand, G-d (and religion in general) was a cop-out, a made-up fairy tale for people who couldn’t wrap their head around the truth, and an excuse for fools to stay ignorant. (Oh, the slurs my all-knowing 18-year-old self would have hurled my way…) Sure, I did the whole reform Jewish thing growing up, but I “outgrew” that the way kids outgrow the tooth fairy, and the entire subject was something I confidently laughed at from the comfort of my cold, hard intellect.
That “logical” and icy way of thinking lasted years, until a Rabbi and Rebbetzin came to UCF from Brooklyn specifically to warm up Jews like me on campus. The whole story is for a different time, but I want to specifically talk about the major catalyst that “turned up the heat” and melted through the polar ice I had plunged my soul into years earlier.
There’s a little book called Tanya.
I call it a “little book” because the well-known Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (Ukraine-ish in the 1700s) once remarked that the author of the Tanya, “put such a great G-d in such a little book.”
That little book cracked the ice.
Learning Tanya with my Rabbi on campus was the first time that I was ever forced to put Judaism and intellectual rigor in any sort of conversation with each other. No longer could I pass the whole affair off as a cop-out or a fairy tale, because here was an indication that I knew nothing about the Judaism I had thought I was worthy of judging. And as a scientist, you can’t make a conclusive statement about something you know nothing about.
So I kept learning.
One of the things that Tanya teaches is that every person has a fiery love and compassion inside of them for G-d and for other human beings. Sometimes it’s deep inside. Sometimes it’s buried really, really deep. But it’s there. And as I kept learning, an amazing thing happened. That fire started melting away the nonchalant attitude I had always used to dismiss Judaism, religion, faith, and the concept of G-d. It started burning through the ice from the inside out.
As the rest of the story (succinctly) goes, I graduated college and went off to seminary in Israel, where I continued to stoke that little fire into a much larger blaze.
And at that point, one of three things can happen:
- The fire burns out and the person goes back to the life they knew before.
- The fire consumes a person, they leave their former life behind, and become someone different.
- The fire fuels a person, and they bring that energy back into their old lifestyle to transform it into an even greater version of their former selves.
Spoiler alert: Option #1 is the easiest, but option #2 is almost equally as accessible. Because whichever way you go, fire and ice don’t naturally coexist. Pick one.
Fortunately, there *is* precedent for option #3… something that paves the way for us to go beyond what’s natural.
In this week’s Torah portion, we read about the first seven of the ten plagues that happened in Egypt. The seventh was the plague of hail. But not just any hail.
It was a hail of fire and ice.
More specifically, it was fire *enclosed by* ice. A fire burning deep inside a hard, cold exterior.
We can learn two lessons from this:
- Like my story, every person (no matter how cold and stone-like they appear) has an inner flame that can’t be extinguished.
- It’s possible for fire and ice to coexist, and we’re capable of bringing that fire into icy, cold, materialistic places and lighting them up as well.
I’m still a work in progress. I’m definitely not going to sit here and pretend like I’ve figured it out, and can regularly and easily maintain a fiery love of G-d even when I’m dealing with the cold realities of daily life and earning an income and interacting with people who look at me the same way my 18-year-old-self might have.
But I’m working on it, because I know it’s possible, and I know that bringing that fire down into this icy world is exactly what we were all put here to do in the first place.
If you’re interested in learning Tanya, the best way to learn is with someone who already knows it. Contact your local Chabad house for details.
If you can’t make it to a Chabad house, I highly recommend (and for beginners, really *only* recommend) this translation and explanation of Tanya by Rabbi Chaim Miller.
If you’d like to read more about the fire and ice of this week’s Torah portion, you can read the actual text and a *ton* of amazing commentaries on Parshah Va’eira here.