Thursday, 27 February 2014

God of Fire and Forge - Pekudei - Mythic Torah

Purphoros, God of the Forge by Eric Deschamps, from Magic: The Gathering
 "Purphoros is the god of the forge, the restless earth, and fire. He rules the raw creative force of heat and energy that fills the souls of sentient beings. His energy emerges as chaos, something to be harnessed and shaped by labor and passion. For this reason, Purphoros is also the god of artisans, of obsession, and of the cycle of creation and destruction."
 -Planeswalker's Guide to Theros

As much time as I spend thinking about Sea Monsters, I probably spend more thinking about Magic: The Gathering, the awesome collectible card game published by Wizards of the Coast. While I love games of all kinds, Magic has the amazing combination of endlessly varied gameplay, the opportunity to experiment and be creative, and unbelievable fantasy art, that it has become my absolute favourite.

The idea behind Magic, and other collectible card games, is that every few months a new set of cards comes out, giving you hundreds of new possibilities for building your decks, and each year the game is set on a different fantasy world.

Now given everything you know about me, you can probably imagine my excitement when I discovered that this year would be set on a world inspired by Greek mythology, a world called Theros. This rich fantasy world has an equally rich pantheon, and one of the major gods is called Purphoros, god of the forge.

As the quote above shows, Purphoros is both the god of fire and destruction, and the god of artisans and artistic creation, the god who creates powerful enchantments and artefacts, and the god of violent rage and consuming fire.

This combination of art and fire marks the end of this week's parasha of Pekudei. We've spend much of the last month reading about the plans and construction of the mishkan, the mobile tabernacle in the wilderness, and after we've read about all these artistic and creative works, God finally manifests in the holy sanctuary:

"For the cloud of the Lord was upon the tabernacle by day, and there was fire within it at night, before the eyes of the entire house of Israel in all their journeys."
 -Exodus 40:38

I hope to talk about the clouds of God's glory another time, but this week I want to focus on the fire of God that burned in the mishkan at night, the fire that filled the magnificent work of the tabernacle, that blazed before the eyes of the whole house of Israel.

Why does God manifest as fire? How does this connect to the work of building the tabernacle?

Of course, Magic didn't get their ideas from whole cloth. In fact, Purphoros is directly inspired by the Greek god Hephaestus (Vulcan for the Romans), who was the blacksmith of the gods, in charge of making Zeus' thunderbolts and other weapons of war. Hephaestus was also the god of fire - volcanoes are named after him.

Fire has these two aspects, creative and destructive, life-sustaining and life-threatening. We need fire to heat our homes, to work metals and create tools that help us gain mastery over the natural world, to fire clay for pots and tiles. But fire out of control can destroy everything, burn down whole towns and cause untold pain.

As a substance, fire is also remarkable, neither solid nor liquid nor gas. To ancient minds, fire must have seemed almost supernatural, literally from the gods in the case of the Greek myth of Prometheus. Even to us today, when we may understand flames as a plasma, fires can be mesmerising and enchanting. We gather around bonfires at the end of camp, and toast marshmallows as we gaze into the flames, even while we're careful to keep our distance.

Divine Blueprint of Fire
I heard a midrash from my rabbi and teacher, Rabbi Barry Dov Katz, that when God first told Moses about the design for the tabernacle (found in Pesikta d'Rav Kahana 1:3), he showed him an image of what it should look like, made of red fire, green fire, black fire and white fire. Moses looked at this image and despaired of ever achieving this grand vision. He said: "Master of the Universe, where can I get red fire, green fire, black fire and white fire?"

The answer in the end is that human beings build the tabernacle from their own materials, the closest they can get to the divine vision of the multi-coloured fires, from gold, silver and precious cloths. And if we do that artistic work of creation, God will meet us where we are, and bring the fire down from heaven to complete the task.

The mythic idea of fire then, seems to be trying to teach us something about the artistic process, or creativity of any kind. We have a vision of what we are aiming for, an impossible vision of fire and flames that cannot exist in this limited physical world. This fire can be exciting, a strong motivator for action, but it can also burn us, paralyse us with fear. Knowing that anything I actually create can't live up to the vision I had, I may be unable to do anything at all - better to have the perfect idea in my mind than to give it form and discover the compromise that comes from making it reality.

And yet Pekudei tells us that when we give with our whole hearts, when we create with every part of our being, true to ourselves and the vision in our minds, there is the possibility that God will come down and fill it with fire. The completed work won't be the same as the idea itself, but it will nevertheless burn with divine flames.

One of the biggest reasons I love Magic: The Gathering is that it gives me a creative outlet in my life, a space to build decks inspired by all kinds of different ideas. While I don't have time at the moment to do as much writing as I would want to (and the revised draft of Radiance is still mocking me to complete it), I need at least some kind of outlet in my life for the fire of creative visions.

Purphoros, Hephaestus and the tabernacle teach us that creative work can be holy and sacred, an avenue to bring the divine flames into the limited physical world.

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