Thursday, February 1, 2018

Parashat Yitro: The Fire of Torah

The Fire of Torah
A Message for Parashat Yitro 2016
Click here to view as PDF

All of Har Sinai was smoking, because God had descended upon it in the fire; its smoke ascended like the smoke of the furnace... (Shemot 19:18)

And the sight of God's glory was like consuming fire at the mountaintop before the eyes of Bnei Yisrael. (Shemot 24:17)

...And on earth eh showed you His great fire, and you heard His words from the midst of the fire. (Devarim 4:36)

The Torah’s description of Ma’amad Har Sinai stresses the imagery of fire. The Hakhamim took notice of this aspect. They envisioned fire as the element that pervaded every aspect of the ceremony, suggesting that everything down to the carving of the tablets was the outcome of “a flame of fire that emanated from His mouth.”[1]

The significance of the awesome scene surrounding the reception of the Torah at Har Sinai stretches beyond the confines of a merely historical event. Just as the missvot that were received on that day are eternally relevant, so too are the variety of remarkable events that transpired at that time. Indeed, many point to the verse in Yirmiyahu (23:29), “Behold, My word is like fire – the word of God,” as attesting to the eternal association between the “fire of Sinai” and the Torah.[2] The Hakhamim similarly drew a clear connection between Torah and fire, describing several mysterious appearances of fire as the result of intense Torah study.[3] What lies at the core of this deep-seated connection between Torah study and fire?

A serious examination of the Torah’s multi-faceted presentation of fire reveals that fire seemingly represents two contradictory concepts that paradoxically merge to form one entity.

On the one hand, fire represents the sublime manifestation of God’s presence in this world, as exemplified by the fire at Matan Torah, and echoed time and again throughout the Torah. It is the “pillar of fire” that led Am Yisrael out of Egypt and through the dessert (Shemot 13:21-22). Later, God revealed his glory to Am Yisrael on the inaugural day of the Mishkan by means of a fire that “came forth from before Hashem” (Vayikra 9:24). Most pointedly, the Torah states, “For the Lord your God is a consuming fire” (Devarim 13:5). It thus emerges from these and several other sources that fire is a purely divine creation that attests to His constant presence in this world. It is no wonder that Hazal metaphorically described the writing of the Torah crafted by God as “black fire upon white fire”.[4]

It is ironic, then, that the very first “creation” of fire was brought forth by man! The Hakhamim described the world’s first mossa’ei Shabbat as the time when God bestowed Adam with knowledge “parallel to that of the Heavens,” leading him to rub two rocks together and bring forth fire. [5] It is perhaps for this reason, as well, that the Torah singled out fire as the paradigm of work that is prohibited on Shabbat, stating, “You shall not kindle fire in any of your dwellings on the Shabbat day” (Shemot 35:3), as fire represents the very creative side of man that is forbidden on the purely divine Shabbat.

A perplexing dialectic thus emerges, with fire representing the sublime manifestation of God in this world, while at once signifying the paradigm of man’s creation in this world. The message, however, is clear – fire represents our mission to partner with God in becoming active creators of this world. At the very moment that God completed his creation, man stepped in to continue it with the creation of fire. [6]

This message is in fact hinted at in a well-known statement of the Hakhamim. Commenting on the verse “After the Hashem, your God, you shall walk” (Devarim 13:5), the Gemara exclaimed:
Can a person indeed walk after the Divine Presence? Does it not say “For the Lord your God is a consuming fire”? Rather, walk after [i.e., emulate] His qualities. Just as he clothes the naked … visits the sick … comforts the mourners … and buries the dead … so should you.[7]

The positive commandment to emulate God – imatatio Dei – is quite a daunting task. After all, He is manifested in this world by fire – an entity man cannot even touch! The Hakhamim thus taught that it can only be accomplished by means of “creating our own fire” – by following the lead of God and actively crafting our own creations in this world.[8]

This can (and indeed must!) be accomplished in a variety of ways:

First, the study of Torah represents our greatest opportunity to partner with God in creation. R. Hayyim of Volozhin famously wrote:

Since the Torah’s descent from its concealed root, so to speak, down to this world…All the vitality and existence of all worlds depends solely upon the breath of our moths and our meditations upon it. And the truth, beyond all doubt, is that were the entire world – from one extremity to the other – to be voided, even for a single moment, from our study and consideration of the Torah, in that moment all the worlds – upper and lower – would be utterly destroyed, Heaven forbid.[9]

In light of the above analysis, I would further submit that our study of Torah must be performed with the goal of becoming “creators.” We can do so by searching for and adding our own understandings and hidushim. Merely studying the words without truly comprehending them and finding “ourselves” in the text falls short of ideal talmud Torah.

In a broader perspective, we must internalize both the general and more specific messages of the Torah and search for our personal connection to them. For example, studying the missvot of loving others and aiding the needy without an active pursuit of locating and treating the downtrodden neighbors and family members in our lives betrays our mandate to construct our own creations in this world.
Most significantly, however, absent-mindedly walking through our day to day lives – our dealings at work, our trips to the supermarket, etc. – without actively searching for methods to imbue these routine and everyday actions with the wisdom and morals of Torah – ignores the missvah of walking in the ways of God and emulating Him as a creator.

Halakhic man is a man who longs to create, to bring into being something new, something original. The study of Torah, by definition, means gleaning new, creative insights from the Torah…

When God created the world, He provided an opportunity for the work of His hands – man – to participate in His creation. The Creator, as it were, impaired reality in order that mortal man could repair its flaws and perfect it…

The most fundamental principle of all is that man must create himself. It is this idea that Judaism introduced to the World.

(R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man)

[1] See Commentary of Rashi to Tehilim 29:7 (s.v. hossev). See, as well, Yalkut Tehilim 795 and Tanhuma Yitro 16.
[2] See R. Yeruham Levovitz’s Daat Hokhma u-Mussar vol. 2 (ma’amar 51) and Da’at Torah – Devarim vol. 2 (pg. 111) and R. Aharon Kotler’s Mishnat R. Aharon vol. 4 (pg. 16).
[3] See, e.g., the description of Yonatan b. Uziel’s Torah study in Sukkah 28a, and the appropriate comments of Tosafot (s.v. kol). See, as well, Ronen Achituv’s “Redemption by Torah Study: The Theology of the Study of Torah in the Mishna and the Talmud,” in On Repentance and Redemption (Jerusalem, IS, 2008), pg. 146-9.
[4] Shekalim 16b.
[5] See Pesahim 54a and Bereshit Rabah 11:2. Micah Goodman further noted the contrast between the Hakhamim’s conception of a “man-made” fire, and the Greek mythological rendition of Prometheus’s theft of fire from the gods (Ha-Ne’um Ha-Aharon Shel Mosheh, pg. 143-4).
[6] Psychologist Stuart Linke similarly wrote: “In symbolic terms, fire is the agent of transformation. It converts the material into the nonmaterial, and as such is an expression of the assumed mystical task of the Jewish people: transforming the material into the spiritual by conscious activity” (Psychological Perspectives on Traditional Jewish Practices, pg. 92).
[7] Sotah 14a.
[8] The Hakhamim hinted at this concept again, in the context of the fire of the mizbe’ah, teaching: “Although the fire descends from the heavens, it is proper to bring it from a person” (Yoma 21b). R. Mordekhai Sabato explained: “פירושו של דבר הוא שהאדם צריך להיות שותף בהשכנת השכינה במשכן ובישראל” (Petah Devareikha vol. I, pg. 214).
[9] Nefesh HaHayim 4:11. It was for this reason that the Volozhin yeshiva instituted a continuous, day and night, study of Torah in its bet midrash.