One Car with Fire in its Belly

November 4, 2004
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Sharon Brous

Rabbi M Arshall Meyer used to tell a great story about a rabbi living in the mid-19th century. When his students heard that a locomotive was coming into the village for the first time, they said to the rabbi, “We’ve got to see the locomotive!” The rabbi said, “We’ll continue to study.” “Rabbi,” the children said, ” the whole world is talking about it .   We’ve got to see it.” They pressured him repeatedly until finally, when the day came for the mysterious machine to arrive, the rabbi brought his students to the center of town to stand with all the people of the village in eager anticipation.   The locomotive finally appeared with a deafening noise, spewing flames and billowing smoke. The rabbi, like the rest of the people in the town, stood mesmerized, marveling at the sight. Moments later, the train sped out of the village and the crowd dispersed. The townspeople returned to their work and to their homes, but the rabbi stood in his place, transfixed.   “Rabbi, are you feeling okay?” the concerned students asked. The rabbi, with a smile, responded, “What have you learned from what you saw today?” One student spoke about the smoke, another spoke about the noise, and a third spoke about the speed. Then the rabbi said, “Let me tell you what I saw:   There was one car with a fire in its belly, and it carried all the other cars.   It only takes one car with fire to move an entire train .”

I suspect that the point of this story is that there are a few extraordinary people in each generation — people who have the fire and the power to carry us through the darkest of times.   The rabbi perceived from the locomotive that strong leaders propelled by passion and vision can render incredible results.

I have been blessed to work and live in inspired communities led by strong, brilliant teachers. Ultimately, though, people are not train cars. And, likely, most people have the potential to be a locomotive with a unique, distinct fire. One important job of a rabbi, then,   is devotion not only to fueling her own fire, but also to awakening the fire in others.

Over the past several months, I have had the privilege of partnering with some extraordinary individuals in Los Angeles to create a new Jewish spiritual community called IKAR, which means the essence, the core. So many of us grew up with a Judaism that seemed superficial, banal, and purposeless. Our community is trying to recapture the mystery, purity, and intensity of the fire of Torah and Divine encounter, as well as to ignite in each individual the sense that he or she has a distinct fire. As the rabbi of this community, I challenge people to move beyond perfunctory engagement with the liturgy and teachings of our tradition, and instead strive toward deep, soulful encounter with the text, God, and one another. I challenge people to ask searing questions, to argue with one another, the text, and with me. I would much rather have them walk away angry than bored. Fundamental to IKAR is my belief in the power of our tradition to radically affect the way we engage the world — and the certainty that individuals with humility, courage, and a sense of mission have the ability to catalyze real change in and far beyond our community.

Accessibility does not have to be synonymous with ease or comfort . Rather, I try to share a Judaism that is compelling, transformative, and vibrant, and therefore worth accessing. We take risks, try new things, make mistakes. We work within a consistent framework, but always strive for spontaneity and surprise — from the seating arrangement to the melodies, to the modes of study and engagement, all of which change frequently. People are dynamic, relationships grow and change — how can a community remain stagnant? Our hope is that our services, activism and learning will look very different in five or ten years than it does today. We know that we need to continue to listen to people, to challenge them in new and exciting ways, if we are to make IKAR an enduring, sustainable community. One striking element of the locomotive story is the rabbi’s initial instinctive rejection of innovation — his sense that every moment away from the books was bitul Torah, an utter waste of time. But he ultimately realized that there is Torah in every experience and human encounter. So many communities stagnate because they are terrified of taking risks, asking new questions, failing. IKAR is committed to evolution, to radical rethinking, to courageous reimagining, which means we are constantly vulnerable to failure — a living, breathing community that is unapologetically imperfect. My hope is that we’ll have the courage to continue on this path even if we’re very successful.   In fact, especially if we’re very successful.

At this moment in history, we can’t afford to luxuriate in passivity and safety, waiting for someone else’s locomotive to steam into town bearing the message of hope, human dignity, the pursuit of justice, and shalom.   We live in a time that demands hundreds of thousands, even millions, of locomotives. Communities of depth, integrity, and sustenance must be about innovating, dreaming, and most of all, helping every individual find the fire in her own belly and giving her the courage to let it burn.

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Sharon Brous is Founding Rabbi of IKAR, a new Jewish Spiritual Community in Los Angeles ( and a member of the Sh'ma Advisory Board.

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