Miracle of Fire

May 9, 2009

10 min read


The Human Potential Movement celebrates the power of man. Chanukah celebrates the power of the Divine.

As a staffer for Tony Robbins, Robin Moskow did the “fire walk” 31 times. This impressive feat entails walking barefoot over a ten-foot-long strip of burning coals heated to 1200° F. The “fire walk” is the climax of the first night of Tony Robbins's popular weekend seminar, “Unleash the Power Within.” Of the 1500-4000 participants at every seminar, 99% choose to do the “fire walk.” In her years with Tony, only once did Robin see a participant burn her feet. Hundreds of thousands of others experience what Tony's website promises: “As the ultimate physical metaphor for your newly emerging mastery, you will storm barefoot across a bed of glowing coals -- and that is only day one!”

According to Robin, her first Tony Robbins's seminar “changed the focus of my life from having no direction to having enough belief in myself that I was able to take on new career challenges. It also improved my relationships with my parents, siblings and friends.”

As the promo for the seminar enthuses: “UNLEASH THE POWER WITHIN is about creating breakthroughs, moving beyond fears and limiting beliefs, accomplishing goals and realizing true desires, turning dreams into reality, creating fulfilling relationships…” In short, the seminar offers personal empowerment on a grand scale.

Robin actualized potentials that she never knew she had, but she still felt that something was missing.

It worked for Robin. She tapped into and actualized potentials that she never knew she had. Still, Robin felt that something was missing, as though her life was two-dimensional, limited to the physical and psychological planes. She sensed that there was something more to reality. “I knew there was something out there bigger than me, but I didn't have a way to understand or appreciate it.

“Tony teaches that if something in your life happens, you created it -- both the good and the bad. He deliberately takes God out of the picture because he wants people to take responsibility for themselves.”

One Mother's Day when Robin was in her second troubled marriage and pregnant with her third child, she walked into the Jewish Community Center across the street from her house and heard a talk by Nili Couzens, who works for Aish HaTorah in Philadelphia. “This talk changed my life forever,” Robin recalls.

Nili asked, “Are you a body or a soul?” Then she told the assembled women that they are essentially souls garbed in bodies, and that the nature of the soul is good and Godlike. “At our core, we want to do good,” Nili asserted.

“It was a life-defining moment,” Robin declares. “Tony teaches that everything comes down to beliefs. What you believe about yourself is your reality. I had a belief my whole life that I was a bad person, because bad things had happened to me. Nili swept that belief away when she told me that I was essentially a soul, that I was essentially good.”

With the spiritual dimension suddenly open to her, Robin began to learn about Judaism and to forge a relationship with God. “When I turned my attention away from me and more to God, and I trusted that what the Torah says is true -- that I'm a good person who wants good -- good things began to happen in my life.”

In fact, that period was an exceptionally challenging time in Robin's life. Her mother died, her father had a heart attack requiring a five-way bypass operation, and her second marriage fell apart. Nevertheless, she characterizes that difficult period as “good” because “the way I was able to cope with my mother's passing, my father's illness, and my divorce was because I had faith in God. I trusted that He knew what He was doing. I stopped asking, 'What about me?'”

Robin's life became God-centered rather than ego-centered. And God, unlike the “highs” delivered by the seminars, was a constant presence in her life. When faced with frightening or daunting situations, Robin used to use a technique she learned from Tony Robbins. “Now I just talk to God,” she remarks. “It feels more powerful.”


Tony Robbins's seminars are, of course, just one of the plethora of programs of the “human potential movement” that have mushroomed in the last three decades. What most of these seminars have in common is their promise of greater personal power, which can be used variously to succeed in business, overcome addictions, achieve lasting health, forge more loving relationships, and even grow spiritually.

What many of them also have in common is that God is absent from the picture.

Take a look at the phenomenal success of Gary Zukav, for example. Mr. Zukav is the author of a half-dozen best-selling books with titles such as, The Seat of the Soul, Soul Stories, and The Mind of the Soul: Responsible Choice. Like Tony Robbins, Gary Zukav offers seminars where he teaches participants how to tap into greater power (which he defines as “the alignment of the personality with the soul”). Unlike Tony Robbins, Gary Zukav operates on the spiritual plane, using terms like: spiritual growth, intuition, non-physical teachers, and multi-sensory perception. The index of The Seat of the Soul lists three references for “angels” and twelve references for “reincarnation.” The word “God” does not appear.

Interestingly enough, Mr. Zukav does assign capital letters to other terms such as Universe, Earth, Life, and Nature, to which he ascribes consciousness and will. But these are passive, undemanding entities, like a benign grandmother who is pleased if you remember her birthday, and shrugs if you don't. The term “power,” which Mr. Zukav uses liberally, is associated only with human beings, never with the Capital-Lettered-Abstractions that substitute for God in Mr. Zukav's Universe.


The “human potential movement” taps into the hitherto untapped potentials of the human being. It is a celebration of human abilities, not unlike the flowering of ancient Greek culture, whose dramatic flourishing of art, science, and philosophy made the civilization of the time almost giddy with infatuation for “Man.”

Imagine a time or place where people draw their water from the local river or cistern. The river is far away; the water in the cistern sooner or later is used up. Then someone discovers a hole in the ground that resembles a cistern, but its water is never used up. This “well” boasts an inexhaustible supply of water. We can imagine the natives celebrating the well, without any inkling that its water comes from an invisible subterranean source: the aquifer.

Judaism agrees that the power of human beings is great, but only because he or she is connected to the Divine Source. To celebrate the human while ignoring God misses the point of human existence, which is to develop an intimate relationship with the Divine, the source of all power and prowess.

The promo for Tony Robbins's “Unleash the Power Within” seminar promises to model “the strategies of peak performers to produce a quantum difference in your life.” Mr. Robbins may be surprised to learn that Judaism also has some peak performers who are also associated with a miracle involving fire. And while Mr. Robbins keeps God out of the picture because he wants people to actively take responsibility for their lives, these Jewish peak performers would contend that putting God in the picture -- in the center of the picture -- empowers people like nothing else. In fact, their name, MACCABEE, is an acronym for the Hebrew words meaning: “Who is like You among powers, God!”


Twenty-two centuries ago the battle lines were drawn, as they are today, between a human-centered world, promulgated by the Greeks, and a God-centered world, promulgated by the Jews. The Greek worldview, with its concomitant artistic, intellectual, and athletic accomplishments, was so attractive that most of the Jewish elite, including the priests, subscribed to it.

An old priest named Mattathias and his family doggedly clung to God and His Torah. When the Selucid Greeks banned the enactment of certain commandments, such as Shabbat and circumsion, the Maccabees refused to comply. In a display of taking responsibility for their lives that would have sent Tony Robbins spinning, this single family, against all odds, rose up and did the impossible. They rebelled against the mighty Selucid Greek Empire, and after years of fighting, vanquished the Greeks from Jerusalem and the Temple precincts. The Maccabees cleansed the Temple of the pagan idolatry introduced by the Hellenists and sought to kindle the Menorah. A thorough search, however, unearthed only one cruse of oil that had not been desecrated. Although it would take a week to get a new supply of pure oil, they decided to light that single cruse of oil, enough to burn only for a single day. Miraculously, the flames continued to burn for eight full days.

The Maccabees were certainly “peak performers,” who 'created breakthroughs, moved beyond fears and limiting beliefs, and turned dreams into reality,' to an astounding degree. One of the key differences that distinguish the Maccabees from the followers of Tony Robbins is that they were fighting for the sake of God and His Torah, not their own personal success.

The Maccabees knew that God was not only the goal of their struggle, but also the source of their victory, the aquifer that had supplied them with water abundant enough to wash the whole Greek army out of Israel. The prayer formulated by the sages of that era in remembrance of the Maccabees' victory clearly assigns all credit to God: “And You, in Your great mercy, stood by them in their troubles; You fought their battle; You judged their dispute;… You delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few… and You made for Yourself a great and holy name in Your world.”

Theirs was an act of faith -- not in themselves, but in God.

The scene in the Temple on the day the Maccabees found the single cruse of pure oil delineates these Jewish “peak performers” from their modern counterparts. If they had been followers of Gary Zukav, they might have said, “What difference does it make that the oil has been desecrated? What counts is your conscious intention. Light the desecrated oil in honor of your soul's victory, and trust the Universe that all will emerge into harmony.”

If they had been followers of Tony Robbins, they might have said, “Let's light the single cruse of oil and utilize the power of mind over matter to keep it burning for eight days. If we believe we can do it, we will make it happen.”

But they were religious Jews, so they said, “We are obligated by a Torah commandment to light the menorah, and we long to serve God in the best possible way, with pure oil. So we will light the Menorah with the single cruse that we have, and leave the rest to God.”

It was an act of faith -- not in themselves, but in God. After winning a war against the great Greek army, the Maccabees had every reason to feel powerful and mighty. The crowning touch of their victory might well have been an act of empowerment. Instead, they performed an act of submission.

Robin's father did the “fire walk” 17 times (at $775 a shot) because, “I needed to recharge my batteries.” The miracle of the oil happened once 2168 years ago. Judging by the menorah flames burning this week in Jerusalem, Paris, London, Johannesburg, New York, St. Louis, Houston, Rio de Janeiro, Santiago, Bombay, Singapore, and thousands of other locales wherever Jews reside, the impact of that single Chanukah miracle has not yet worn off. Want to bet it never will?


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