Fanning The Flame

Rabbi Tatz has a shiur that I listened to many years ago about how the initial spark of inspiration to any new activity or dream is extremely intense. After a while, the intensity dies a bit and what is left is a lower-burning flame that must be worked at, with much effort, to be kept alive. This is certainly true for myself, and I think many, baalei teshuvah, when it comes to spirituality, religious committment, and davening.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It would be incredibly difficult to stay at such a high for an extended length of time, and one would likely burn out altogether after a while. It’s important for a person to find their equilibrium, to reach a point of balance between that intense spark and their former lower level, and to find it in a place where it is possible to sustain for life.

But it’s hard when you come down from that high. It’s difficult when you realize that you can’t channel that height that you once achieved, and if you can, it’s only for a short period of time. It sometimes makes a person want to give up altogether.

But it’s important to realize that you have to keep plugging away, that this decline is completely normal, and to maintain an equilibrium is an accomplishment in itself. Continuing to daven when it’s by rote, going to shiurim that don’t awe as much as they used to, and learning even when you aren’t as enthusiastic are all still important ways to continue feeding the flame of yiddishkeit that was once lit by a great spark.

I think it’s important that one immerses themselves in a community during these times as well. It’s much easier to feel motivation to continue performing mitzvos when he is not doing it alone. Friends, family and rebbeim can all contribute by adding kindling to the fire, and fanning the flame to stay lit. Having a support system in place to hold one up in times of darkness, to give chizuk during difficult challenges, makes a huge difference in one’s will to keep hanging on.

I think it’s also important to continue reminding oneself that this is a normal phenomenon, instead of beating oneself up for not always feeling the same level of intensity. It’s a normal part of being human to have ups and downs, peaks and plateaus, in any part of life, not just in religion.

The spark inside all of us can stay lit, but it’s not something that doesn’t take hard work and effort, and it’s important that we realize that the flame won’t always burn as bright, the fire as high, as it might initially. The important part is that we keep it burning at all, that we fan the flame, giving our souls the oxygen they need to continue shining.

Originally Posted July 2006.

20 comments on “Fanning The Flame

  1. Rabbi,

    I didn’t know that the above artists had any “Jewishness” in them.

    As an aside, what a waste of good instruments, to do that to those guitars…they must have had a lot of $$ to spend on guitars everytime they destroyed them….but that’s another story for another day…


  2. Beat chainsaw into guitars? Didn’t The Who beat their guitars into the ground, and Jimi Hendrix set fire to his?


  3. Rabbi Simenowitz,

    Amen to your last comment!

    Beat chainsaw into guitars? Didn’t The Who beat their guitars into the ground, and Jimi Hendrix set fire to his?

    Oy vey!


  4. Indeed I am (sans the chainsaw)

    as it says in the Navi “and they shall beat their chainsaws into guitars” (or something like that . . . )

    looking forward to meeting you and the BT chevra

    May this be our last Tisha B’Av in golus

  5. Rabbi Simenowitz,

    Thanks….why I haven’t worn them before is beyond me. I also wonder why, when my Zaide A’H’, who was very Frum, gave me Tefillin upon my Bar Mitzvah, didn’t give me Tzitzis, or any other Frum relative I have.

    BTW, when my oldest daughter, Sharon, noticed them yesterday (they were partially out), she thought I looked like a different person, in a good way!

    Chainsaw? Don’t have one!

    Are you coming to the Shabbaton?

    Have an easy & meaningful fast,

  6. Martin – mazal tov! tzitzis are a great mitzva – when the vilna gaon was on his deathbed, his students noticed he was crying. when they asked him why, he replied that he would miss doing the mitzva of tzitzis which could be done for a few zlotyz but which contained all of the mitzvos.
    BTW they’ll always need to be re-adjusted. Moreover, if you decide to wear them out, remember to tuck them in when you run your chainsaw – trust me on that one

  7. Jaded Topaz,

    Thanks for the “awesome” comments! I actually have one good fireworks’s the best one I have taken so far…and it was my 1st time doing a pro display! The “tzitzis thing” is going ok!


  8. “A community a month”

    How about a Shabaton per week? I, blee neder, plan on being there.

    “And then moving on for more sparkly pastures before things get stale and jaded.”

    The challenge, as Shoshana articulates in the original post, is how to keep things from growing stale w/o having to “move on”. One of the 10 constant miracles in the Bais HaMikdosh was that the show-breads never got stale even though they were changed only once a week! As we approach Tisha B’Av and mourn the destruction of the Bais HaMikdosh one of the things we weep for is this loss of this evergreen freshness. If one can meet this challenge then one will have found the golden mean between Pollyannaism and Jadedness. Healthy skepticism need not equal cynical pessimism. BTW does word-threading =writing, or is it something more specific?

  9. Martin Fleischer – that’s awesome that you’ve got the Macy’s fireworks slides. I have scrapbooks and CD’s of my fireworks pics none that are picture club worthy though … wish I could see your slides, but I won’t be around for the shabbaton. Good luck with the tzitzis thing. From your comments around here in general, you really sound like an awesome father and person.

    Rabbi Schwartz – thanks for the accolade rimmed criticism. I’ll pretend it was served in a pretty glitter martini glass. Love your word threading. No need for “heartbreaking” to be part of you emotional vocabulary though. My lateral metaphor works perfectly for me. Regarding the ship, there are plenty of lighthouses available for blinding the way for a spiritual tomorrow and they come complete with prefab communities with equal parts of trite/ pre-programmed/limited options and not fascinating undertones and subtexts on the listed features. It’s mostly a question of where and why on the community belonging not the initial availability of one. Regarding your comparison on the marriage partner and community thing, your right that there is only a need for one and the right one is hard to recognize, but on the flip side if you don’t find the correct one – than using the flighty infinite options approach to stuff could work well. A community a month or a “marriage” a month could make things colorful/ meaningful. There truly is nothing like fabricating purpose /meaning/direction and a sense of belonging and then moving on for more sparkly pastures before things get stale and jaded.

  10. Belle-
    You were mechaven (i.e. said much the same thing as) the Sfas Emes (and at the every least on a national level to Shlomo HaMelech in Shir HaShirim). He explains that initial passionate inspirations that we experience are a gift from HaShem (an Isarusa Dee’Leayla= an “awakening from on high”) that is akin to the intensity of first/young love. It is this intensity that is crucial to forming the covenantal relationship with HaShem.

    Yet this intense “awakening from on high” is ultimately sterile and bears no long term fruits. All future feelings of spiritual intensity after the initial gift are the result of our own efforts/ bechira exercises AKA isarusa Dee’Lesata= an “awakening from below”. By their human-finite nature these subsequent feelings of ardor are (at first) limited in their intensity. Yet it is precisely these “awakenings from below” that bear spiritual offspring and that (in theory) begin a series of symbiotic responses that recapture the initial ardor and intensity. [On a national rather than individual level this is in essence the relationship between Pesach= “awakening from on high” and Shavuos=our nuptials with HaShem with Sefiras HaOmer=“awakening from below” willful acts of purification and tikun HaMiddos, in between.]

    Topaz- As always you displayed awesome rhetorical pyrotechnics and deeply felt emotions in your stream-of-consciousness prose poetry. But your metaphor is, as per the above cited Sfas Emes, moving not just laterally but in the wrong direction. Our relationships with HaShem are not the inert-mineral stuff of fireworks displays which may illicit an ephemeral biochemical emotional responses of “rush” and excitement. Rather they are the vital-undying soul-life stuff of ethereal everlasting love (ahavas olam tovee lohem ubris avos labonim tizkor).

  11. It’s true..all beginnings do tend to be difficult. Case in point: I just started wearing Tzitzis for the first time ever, and this morning, on the way to work, it had moved so much that I had to re-adjust it @ work so that it would be aligned correctly. After a while, I’m sure it will be no problem for me to put it on correctly. Not that it’s going to be second-nature to me (you can’t EVER let everyday mitzvoth become like that), but it will be easier to do since I’ll be used to doing it every day.

    Jaded Topaz:

    I saw the Macy*s Fireworks from Vernon Blvd in LIC, and wound up with a nice transparancy (slide) that I will be entering this season in one of our Photo Club competitions. If you are coming to the Shabbaton, I’ll show it to you!


  12. Great point! I would like to add that this insight holds true in other areas, such as marriage. The intensity of the engagement period and 1st year of marriage is special, but few marriages survive like that long term. Learning to be happy with less intense experiences is a process. So I guess the relationship of this point to Shoshana’s is that a BT is like a “newlywed” to Hashem. After the wedding and shana rishona, we need to learn how to enjoy our frumkeit on a day to day level.

  13. IMHO there’s another way to look at it – imagine dumping a can of gas on a sputtering fire – impressive? maybe but you’ll char/burn your steak unlike that nice even bed of coals the power of which can be harnessed to do what needs to be done
    that being said, there’s always a need to “stoke the coals” (just gearing up for the shabbaton!)

    kol tuv


  14. Shoshana,
    Thanks for writing about a topic that effects us all. It’s funny, I started driving to work today and realized that I need stearing fluid for my car. Driving even a few miles without fluid reminded me that at times I need to put in extra effort to head in the intended direction. Great post!

  15. Great post, Shoshana. I only want to add that sometimes we are jolted out of the plateau by a troubling experience. Look at these nine days — it seems so much easier this year to arouse the intense prayer and desire for teshuva in light of the current matzav in Israel. I don’t know if the fervor came so easily in prior years. So sometimes the heightened focus and intensity comes as a wake-up call in response to something tragic.

  16. I think that this is one of those issues that applies strongly to FFBs as well. The only difference is that we are a bit more used to it: We grew up in an environment where we see that such a deadening of the flame is normal, and therefore perhaps it is easier not to let it ‘get us down’, while BTs come in more inspired – and often through people who are more inspiring – and therefore are in for a bit of a ‘culture shock’ when they see that most people aren’t like that. But it’s still always a difficulty and disappointment: Whenever one is inspired, to see that others are not can be disheartening.

  17. Interesting perspective Shoshana, but you make it sound like belonging to a community is as easy as dialing 1800 – COMMUNITIE and leaving the S off for savings. Do they also take away the old excess community baggage at no charge? Experiencing the spiritual oh my g-d the world is ethereal and filled with magic can be compared mostly to the sparkle and glitter of fireworks displays happenstance, particularly Macy’s in NYC. If your privileged you get porch seating from your office or loft. If your plain lucky you get to sit on the FDR feeling the community – (literally). If your not part of the Macy’s & NYC’s community but like to pretend your are, Liberty State park viewing gets you all 5 versions from a distance. Then there are other community fireworks displays for transient viewing harder to belong to/but better parking.

    Depths and levels of experience are directly proportionate to how and where you belong. But once there is no sparkle dust left its basically bordering on the impossible to get the spiritual energy glittery thing sparkly again. All the stoking, coaxing, wishing on a star and stirring speeches will just be sifting the spent firework shells of yesterday’s inspirations. The proverbial belief that there is always that one tiny spark is mostly a NYC street version of the Pollyana Perspective. And like any good fireworks display show the finale is take your breath away ethereal but all you’ve got left is the dark inky sky of materialism for posterity purposes with no stars of spirituality in sight. The – reality is not as fun – fact gently reaffirms its position on the well worn /grounded seat in the field of pressed grass/weeds waiting for the sparkle and glitter of the fireworks to continue but knowing that the finale is over and its time to move on cuz the sparkle dust of spirituality has settled and cannot be used as a glitter colored looking glass to view the world through.

  18. Shoshana, you highlight an interesting point, in the beginning of the BT lifecycle the focus is usually on Torah and Avodah(Tefillah) with the Chesed often being repressed by idealism leading to frustration with the imperfections of our fellow Jews.

    After we come down from that initial spark, we start seeing the difficulty in living up to our high ideals and are then more able to embrace our fellow Jews, imperfections and all. Which is why I agree with you that BTs (and FFBs) should be greatly focused on Chesed and community, because that is an area that everybody can excel at.

  19. I’ve heard this shiur from Rabbi Tatz and he also delves into the topic in some of his books.

    My Rav, Rabbi Moshe Turk, asked the question why do chazal say “kol chaschalah kasha”, all beginnings are difficult. In rwality, like you said, “the initial spark of inspiration to any new activity or dream is extremely intense”. It is only after that beginning, suffused with enthusiasm, that things become difficult. So, why do we say that all beginnings are difficult.

    Rabbi Turk answered that what we perceive as the beginning is not really the beginning. Since that first step is so directed by entusiasm and a heady intensity, it cannot really be considered the beginning. It is only after that initial intensity wanes that the real beginning comes. And I think we can all agree that that period is always difficult.

Comments are closed.