Black Fire on White Fire

by Rabbi Moshe Adler

Our Sages teach (Midrash D’varim Rabbah, 3:12):

God betrothed Israel at Sinai, as it is written, “and the LORD said to Moses, ‘Go to the people and get them ready [v’kiddashtam, which can also mean “betroth them”]’” (Exodus 19:10).

Who wrote the document of betrothal? Moses. From where in Scripture do we know this? It is said,

“Moses wrote down this Teaching [torah]” (Deuteronomy 31:9).

And what reward did God give him? A radiant face, as it is written,

“Moses was not aware that the skin of his face was radiant” (Exodus 34:29).

…When did he acquire the radiant face? When he wrote the Torah. How did this come about? Resh Lakish said: The scroll that was given to Moses was made of a parchment of white fire, and was  written upon with black fire and sealed with fire and was wrapped with bands of fire, and while he was writing it, he wiped his pen on his hair, and as a result he acquired a radiant face.

The Bible often represents God’s presence as a fire, one that threatens those who disrespect God but sheds benign radiance on those who revere Him. In this fascinating midrash, Moses is depicted as God’s faithful scribe, so engrossed in his work that, rather than bothering to grab a cloth to wipe his pen, he runs his pen through his hair. Because the “ink” he is using is black fire (a divine mystery in itself ), it neither singes nor stains his hair, and instead leaves his face radiant.

In conceiving of the Torah as God’s document of betrothal of Israel, this midrash is elaborating on the prophetic motif of God as the husband of Israel. No matter how often the “wife” proves unfaithful, her “Husband” never divorces her: “Thus said the LORD: Where is the bill of divorce of your mother whom I dismissed?” (Isaiah 50:1). On the contrary, He assures her of a day when “I will espouse you forever: I will espouse you with righteousness and justice, and with goodness and mercy, and I will espouse you with faithfulness; then you shall know the LORD” (Hosea 2:21-22).

To say that the document of God’s betrothal of Israel is made of divine fire is to say that, as long as God desires the marriage to continue, nothing can dissolve it or change its terms. This fact is reflected
in the law that, no matter how far a Jew has strayed from the Torah and from God, even to the extent of converting to another religion (including one that purports to be a new and “completed” version of the Torah), the door is always open for return.

The returnee need not convert to Judaism, since, although he may have left Judaism, it has never left him. (The Ashkenazic practice of having the returnee immerse in a mikveh before a bet din and declare his renunciation of the other religion and his acceptance of the Torah is not a conversion but a public statement of homecoming.)

Some of the radiance on Moses’ face, which came from his faithful contact with the Torah, can be seen in the eyes of any Jew who maintains faithful contact with the Torah and its commandments. Each morning before the Sh’ma, we pray, “Make our eyes light up with Your Torah and our hearts cling to Your mitzvot.”

Like any good marriage, this one lasts the whole year through. So catch some rays this summer (while protecting your skin), catch up on your reading, and make time for Torah learning and mitzvah observance.

After all, we don’t want to take the One we love for granted.

Comments are closed.

This entry was posted on Thursday, July 7th, 2011 at 4:10 pm and is filed under Uncategorized . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.