Parashat VeZot HaBerakhah
One of the most compelling images for the Torah emerges from the blessing offered by Moshe in this week’s reading:
וְזֹאת הַבְּרָכָה אֲשֶׁר בֵּרַךְ מֹשֶׁה אִישׁ הָאֱלֹהִים אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לִפְנֵי מוֹתוֹ: וַיֹּאמַר ה' מִסִּינַי בָּא וְזָרַח מִשֵּׂעִיר לָמוֹ הוֹפִיעַ מֵהַר פָּארָן וְאָתָה מֵרִבְבֹת קֹדֶשׁ מִימִינוֹ (אשדת)1 אֵשׁ דָּת לָמוֹ:
This is the blessing with which Moshe, man of God, blessed the children of Israel before his death. He said: God came from Sinai and shined to them from Se’ir; He appeared from mount Paran and came from among tens of thousands of holy ones; from His right hand a fiery law (eish-dat) for them.
Rashi explains that the word “fiery” is not merely adjectival and metaphorical, but rather it is a substantive claim that the Torah was originally composed of fire:
רש"י דברים לג:א-ב
אש דת. שהיתה כתובה מאז לפניו באש שחורה על גב אש לבנה, נתן להם בלוחות כתב יד ימינו.
Rashi to Devarim 33:2
Fiery law. That it was primordially written before [God] in black fire on top of white fire. He gave it to them on tablets, inscribed by His right hand.
Although the Torah that Moshe received was written on two stone tablets and the sifrei torah that we write are parchment and ink, the original Torah which God had in heaven was fire on fire. This beautiful image is also complex and highly instructive. On the one hand, it opens us to the possibility of creative and personal interpretations of the Torah and on the other hand, cautions us against taking too many liberties with our most sacred text.
Rashi’s quite literal image of a Torah composed of fire is based on Midrash Tanhuma, which also explains what the initial purpose was of this fire-Torah:
מדרש תנחומא בראשית א:א
בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים (בראשית א:א). זֶה שֶׁאָמַר הַכָּתוּב: ה' בְּחָכְמָה יָסַד אָרֶץ (משלי ג:יט). וּכְשֶׁבָּרָא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אֶת עוֹלָמוֹ נִתְיָעֵץ בַּתּוֹרָה… וְהַתּוֹרָה בַּמֶּה הָיְתָה כְתוּבָה? עַל גַּבֵּי אֵשׁ לְבָנָה בְּאֵשׁ שְׁחוֹרָה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: קְוֻצּוֹתָיו תַּלְתַּלִּים שְׁחוֹרוֹת כָּעוֹרֵב (שה"ש ה:יא). מַהוּ קְוֻצּוֹתָיו תַּלְתַּלִּים? עַל כָּל קוֹץ וָקוֹץ תִּלֵּי תִלִּים שֶׁל הֲלָכוֹת. כֵּיצַד? כָּתוּב בָּהּ, וְלֹא תְחַלְּלוּ אֶת שֵׁם קָדְשִׁי (ויקרא כב:לב), אִם אַתָּה עוֹשֶׂה חֵי''ת הֵ''א, אַתָּה מַחֲרִיב אֶת הָעוֹלָם. כֹּל הַנְּשָׁמָה תְּהַלֵּל יָהּ (תהלים קנ:ו), אִם אַתָּה עוֹשֶׂה הֵ''א חֵי''ת, אַתָּה מַחֲרִיב אֶת הָעוֹלָם…
Midrash Tanhuma (Vilna) Bereishit 1:12
With Reishit (that is, the Torah) God created the world (Bereishit 1:1). This is as the verse says: God established the earth with wisdom (Mishlei 3:19). And when the Holy Blessed One created His world He consulted the Torah… And with what was the Torah written? On top of white fire with black fire, as it says His wavy locks (kevutzotav taltalim) black as a raven (Shir HaShirirm 5:11). What is kevutzotav taltalim? On each and every point (kotz v’kotz) are piles and piles (tilei tilim) of halakhot. How so? It is written in [the Torah], Do not profane (tehallelu) My holy name (VaYikra 22:32), and if you make the [letter] “het” into a “heh” you destroy the world [since then the verse would read “Do not praise (tehallelu) My holy name”]! All souls should praise (tehallel) God (Tehillim 150:6)! And if you make the “heh” into a “het” you destroy the world [since then the verse would read “All souls should profane (tehallel) God”].
The beginning of this midrash teaches that the Torah served as a guide to God’s creation of the world. This process is described in parallel midrashic traditions3 as being akin to looking at a blueprint before building a complex structure. The Torah as the template for creation indicates that the Torah is a source for infinite creativity. The fire of the Torah is the fire of ingenuity. When fire heats a material it becomes pliable. And when the Torah is given to us, according to Rashi,4 this fiery flexibility is passed along to God’s people through His writing on the stone tablets in fire. Although words etched in stone are permanent,5 this permanence does not preclude mutability and creativity. The Torah is not only eternal, it is also alive.
The creative possibility that is suggested by fire in the first half of the midrash is tempered by the second half of the midrash, where the dangerous element of fire is made explicit. The Torah may be flickering, but its borders are actually quite precise. Do not confuse the black and white fires, do not blur the edges. The example given to illustrate this danger are the letters het and heh, which not only look alike, they also sound alike.6 But they are not the same letter and in certain contexts if one were to extend the leg of the heh or leave out part of the leg of the het—a minor scribal and phonetic change—the results could be disastrous. One could profane God or neglect to praise Him.
The prooftext for the concern over proper distinction between the letters is striking. The midrash employs a verse from Shir HaShirim which describes the hair of the male lover, who is understood to represent God. His hair has two significant features, it is dark black and it has curls or edges. Hair is a compelling analogy for the Torah: Just as hair grows from the head of a person, yet is separable from them, so too the Torah is an outgrowth of God, a part of God, yet not identical with Him. The precision of the description of the hair points to a deliberateness of the Torah: what is black needs to remain black and its form may not be changed.
However, when speaking about the specificity of the laws of the Torah, the midrash also employs language that points to the possibility of multiple derivations from the same verse, word or letter, “On each and every point (kotz v’kotz) are piles and piles (tilei tilim) of halakhot.” This illustrates the delicate balance we must strike as interpreters of the Torah. The Torah holds a tremendous amount of possibility, and that is exactly where the danger lies. One can interpret the Torah in myriad ways, but one has to be extremely careful not to change the Torah, for even the slightest change can spell disaster.
This expression, “on each and every point are piles and piles of halakhot,” is featured in a talmudic story that valorizes R. Akiva’s creativity in interpreting the Torah:
תלמוד בבלי מנחות כט:
בשעה שעלה משה למרום מצאו להקב"ה שיושב וקושר כתרים לאותיות. אמר לפניו: רבש"ע, מי מעכב על ידך? אמר לו: אדם אחד יש שעתיד להיות בסוף כמה דורות ועקיבא בן יוסף שמו שעתיד לדרוש על כל קוץ וקוץ תילין תילין של הלכות. אמר לפניו :רבש"ע, הראהו לי! אמר לו חזור לאחורך. הלך וישב בסוף שמונה שורות ולא היה יודע מה הן אומרים. תשש כחו. כיון שהגיע לדבר אחד אמרו לו תלמידיו: רבי מנין לך? אמר להן הלכה למשה מסיני. נתיישבה דעתו…
Talmud Bavli Menahot 29b
At the time that Moshe went up to heaven, he found God sitting and tying crowns to the letters.7 He said to Him, “Master of the Universe! Who is forcing You to do this?!” He said to him, “There is a person who will be in the future, at the end of many generations, and his name is Akiva b. Yosef, who will eventually interpret from each little point piles and piles of laws.” [Moshe] said to [God], “Master of the Universe, show him to me!” He said to him, “Return behind you.” [Moshe] went and he sat at the end of eight rows and did not know what they were saying.8 He became dispirited. When [R. Akiva] got to a specific item, his students said to him, “Rabbi, how do you know this?” He said to them, “It’s a tradition from Moshe from Sinai (halakhah l’Moshe miSinai).” And [Moshe] was comforted.
This story emphasizes and praises the possibility of deriving meaning from the crowns, the scribal flourishes atop some of the letters in a Torah scroll. The creative interpretations of R. Akiva are so significant and so generative that God deliberately provides R. Akiva with material with which to expound. Yet again, in this story, the infinite possibility represented by the piles of halakhot has an implicit restriction placed upon it: the halakhot need to be characterizable as Halakhah l’Moshe miSinai, as Sinaitic tradition. Even if the teachings are new, they need to seem old and venerable, they need to resonate with and match received tradition. Moshe needs to accept the possibility that this idea originates at Sinai.
The crowns on the letters are tied to the Torah not unlike God’s hair is connected to God’s head in the Midrash Tanhuma. The Torah’s beauty, like the beauty of the lover’s curly locks, is there to inspire us and to allow us to take the Torah in new directions. But our creativity needs to be tempered by precision. The number of interpretations are boundless, but their content is limited. That the Torah of fire serves as the blueprint for the creation is a statement not only about the creative potential within the Torah, but also of its destructive potential. If the Torah is part of the fabric of creation, pulling out the wrong thread of the Torah could cause the entire world to unravel. And the image of the fiery law, which creates and destroys, warms and incinerates, is designed to teach us that lesson.
The Ramban, in his introduction to his commentary to the Torah, also highlights the tension between the creative license we are given in interpreting the Torah and the high stakes involved in taking that license too far. In doing so, he too employs the image of a Torah of fire, an eish dat:
רמב"ן בראשית הקדמה
עוד יש בידינו קבלה של אמת כי כל התורה כולה שמותיו של הקב"ה, שהתיבות מתחלקות לשמות… כי זה הענין יחייב אותנו לפסול ס"ת שיחסר בו ו' אחד… אע"פ שאינו מעלה ולא מוריד כפי העולה במחשבה… ונראה שהתורה הכתובה באש שחורה על גבי אש לבנה בענין הזה שהזכרנו היה שהיתה הכתיבה רצופה בלי הפסק תיבות, והי' אפשר בקריאתה שתקרא על דרך השמות ותקרא על דרך קריאתנו בענין התורה והמצוה. ונתנה למשה רבינו על דרך קריאת המצות ונמסר לו על פה קריאתה בשמות.
Ramban Introduction to Commentary on Sefer Bereishit
We have a further tradition of truth that the entirety of the Torah is [composed of] names of the Holy Blessed One, that the words can be divided into names… and it is this notion which compels us to invalidate a Sefer Torah which is missing one vav [in the middle of a word which could have been written with nekudot (vowels) under the consonants instead of writing the full word with the vav]… even though it does not make any difference in terms of what will appear in one’s mind… and it appears that the [idea that] the Torah is written with black fire on white fire is related to the idea that we mentioned, that is that the writing was continuous without spaces between the words and it was possible to read it in the way of reading names or to read it as we read it in the way of reading [the text] of the Torah and mitzvot. And it was given to our teacher Moshe with the way of reading as mitzvot, but given to him orally with the reading of names.9
The Ramban’s introduction to his commentary on the Torah ties two independent traditions about the nature of the Torah together. First, he introduces the idea that the text of the Torah transcends the meaning of the stories and laws of the Torah. Instead, the Torah can be read as God’s signature. The letters can be strung together to form one long name of God or grouped in different ways to form smaller names of God. The tradition of reading for meaning that we have inherited is just one way to approach the Torah’s contents. The Ramban then connects this idea to the claim that the Torah was primordially written with fire. Although he does not say so explicitly, it is likely that this connection is anchored by the way “fiery law” is written in Torah. In the written text, the ketiv, these two words are written as one: אשדת; but in the way it is pronounced, the keri, it is separated into two words: אש דת. The word eishdat has no conventional meaning, no translation, but we are not at liberty to separate it into two words in the written text. Through tradition we read this word as two and derive from it that the Torah is made of fire.
However, the Ramban does not make clear how these two ideas are related and how they strengthen one another.
One way of reading the Ramban’s teaching that the Torah is God’s name is that it expands the possible derivations and teachings that the Torah can produce. And, significantly, he says that this is the basis for not adding or deleting letters—even if they don’t have meaning—not unlike the Gemara’s insistence that we need to keep the crowns of the letters—even though they hold no semantic value. This tension parallels the teachings that we have learned in regards to the Torah’s fiery origin and nature, and perhaps this is why the Ramban connects these two ideas.
However, the Ramban’s connection is even deeper. The midrash focuses on the black fire, the letters which are like the wavy edges of God’s hair. According to the Ramban, however, the significance of this teaching is in the white fire. The Ramban focuses on the space between the letters, which is both quite deliberately placed, and also gestures to the possibility of a different placement and meaning. Not only do the letters teach, but so do the spaces. Were it not for the white fire, the black fire would be meaningless. In some sense, then, all of the Torah’s ability to convey meaning is determined by the white space which puts limits on where the letters go. And it is this same white space which affords the possibility of new and unexpected interpretations.
Three different interpretive concerns arise from these texts. First is the basic concern outlined by the Tanhuma that we will say something wrong or destructive, not reading carefully or thinking that we may make small adjustments to the Torah’s text. We may swap one letter for another and inadvertently say something antithetical to the Torah. The second concern, highlighted by the story of Moshe and R. Akiva, is that we may make an interpretation which is so novel and so idiosyncratic that it will be considered a departure from tradition. The Ramban’s interpretation of the Torah as God’s name introduces a third risk: The Torah is God’s signature. When we make an interpretive leap using the text of the Torah, we are also implicitly claiming that our interpretation qualifies as God’s word, that God has signed off on it, as it were. It is a serious and holy responsibility to manipulate God’s name, and we need to acknowledge and reckon with that as we teach and speak on God’s behalf.
These concerns are familiar to me. In writing the Divrei Torah these past two years, I have regularly needed to ask myself these questions: Am I altering the Torah? Am I misrepresenting the Torah? Would God agree to put His name to the argument that I am trying to make or the behavior that I’m trying to encourage? Teaching Torah is a significant responsibility. Asking these questions has been humbling for me and I am immensely grateful for having had the opportunity to hold myself accountable to what it means to speak through the Torah and for the Torah.
Thank you for learning with me and providing me with this immense privilege and holy responsibility.
Wishing you a hag of returning to the Torah and its core questions.
1In the written text of the Torah (ketiv), the term “eishdat” is a single word. Rabbinic tradition dictates, however, that it be pronounced and understood (keri) as two separate words.
2One beautiful element of this midrash is that it ties the blessings in V’Zot HaBerakhah to the creation of the world which mimics the way we liturgically experience this parashah. V’Zot HaBerakhah is the only section of the Torah which is only read on a hag, Simhat Torah, rather than on Shabbat, and when it is read, it is always immediately followed by the reading of the beginning of Bereishit.
3See Bereishit Rabbah 1:1 where the image of the blueprint is made explicit, along with the derivation that Reishit in the word BeReishit refers to the Torah, based on Mishlei 8:22: God created me (that is, wisdom) as the first, reishit, of His path.
4 Rashi’s interpretation is based on the Sifrei on this verse, which reads קול ה' חוצב להבות אש, God’s voice cleaves with flashes of fire (Tehillim 29:7), as a reference to chiseling the tablets with fire.
5 See R. Elazar’s statement to this effect on Talmud Bavli Eruvin 53b.
6The continuation of the midrash has an additional two examples, where the difference is purely visual, not phonetic: dalet and reish, kaf and bet.
7 It is not entirely clear what this image is referring to. Most people understand it to refer to the ornamental “crowns” that appear on certain letters in a Torah scroll.
8In classic Rabbinic academies, the more senior students sat in front. Moshe was literally and metaphorically at the back of the class.
9This idea provides another interpretation for the phrase “Halakhah l’Moshe miSinai” used in Talmud Bavli Menahot. Perhaps Moshe’s mind is set at ease in the story because the Torah that He received from God is one that he is explicitly told can support more than one reading.