The Connection between Parashat Ve-Zot Ha-Berakhah and Parashat Bereshit

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October 13 2008

The beginning of Parashat Ve-Zot Ha-Berachah (Deuteronomy 33:2) contains a difficult, enigmatic verse:
The L-RD came from Sinai;
He shone upon them from Seir;
He appeared from Mount Paran,
And approached from Ribeboth- kodesh,
Lightning flashing at them from His right.

{The word phrase “lightning flashing” (a citation of the recent [1962] JPS translation of the Torah) is a translation of the Hebrew esh-dat. (The previous [1917] JPS translation was “a fiery law.” This follows the translation of R. Samson Rafael Hirsch [and others], who understood this phrase to mean “a Law of fire.”)}

The simple meaning of the text describes an event that took place when God gave the Torah to Moshe, and does not refer to any other time period. Rashi, however (ad loc.), writes s follows:

A fiery law: it was written of yore before Him with black fire upon white fire….

Ramban, in the introduction to his commentary on Sefer Bereshit, expands upon this theme: {See Ramban: [Nachmanides]: Commentary on the Torah: Genesis: translated and annotated by Rabbi Dr. Charles Chavel (New York, 1971).}

The reason for the Torah being written in this form (namely, the third person) is that it preceded the creation of the world, and needless to say, it preceded the birth of Moses our teacher. It has been transmitted to us by the tradition that it (the Torah) was written with letters of black fire upon a background of white fire. Thus, Moses was like a scribe who copies from an ancient book, and therefore he wrote anonymously. …(p.8)

We have yet another mystic tradition that the whole Torah is comprised of Names of the Holy One, blessed be He, and that the letters of the words separate themselves into Divine Names when divided in a different manner, as you may imagine by way of example that the verse of Bereshit divides itself into these other words: berosh yitbateh Elo-kim… (pp. 13-14)

It would appear that the Torah “written with letters of black fire upon a background of white fire” was in this form we have mentioned, namely, that the writing was contiguous, without break of words, which made it possible for it to be read by way of divine Names and also by way of our normal reading which makes explicit the Torah and the commandment. It was given to Moses our teacher using the division of words which expresses the commandment, and orally it was transmitted to him in the rendition which consists of the Divine Names….(pp. 14-15)

Apparently, according to the Ramban, the idea that the primordial Torah was written with black fire on top of white fire pertains to the idea that this document was originally written (before the creation of the universe) without separating the letters into distinct words. Subsequently, one can separate the letters into different combinations, providing us with different results. One combination will result in the words that are entirely names of God. Another combination will result in the text of the Torah that we have today, with words that refer to Torah and mitzvoth. Ramban does not, in his commentary, discuss the philosophical/scientific problems with the notion of a primordial Torah.

R. Isaac ben Samuel of Acre, who was active in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, was acquainted with a variety of kabalistic schools, including the Spanish schools of Gerona and Barcelona, and studied the Ramban’s kabalistic works as well. R. Isaac quotes the aforementioned Ramban and the idea that the Torah was written two thousand years before the creation of the world, and that it was written with black fire upon white fire, but, remarkably, has difficulty with it. Perhaps unexpectedly for a kabbalist, his objection to the plain meaning of the tradition is precisely due to philosophic/scientific considerations. How can one talk about a precise span of “time” between the moment when the Torah was created and the time that the universe was created, if time is a function of motion, and motion is a function of created objects? Since there was no universe, there was no time! For that matter, how can one talk of a “black fire” on top of “white fire?” The only way “out” of these problems, in his view, is to assert that the statement that Ramban cites cannot be taken literally, that is, in the context of our notions of time, space and causality. It is true, however, in a kabalistic sense.

{The translation of the passage by R. Isaac of Acre (taken from a manuscript of his work Otzar Hayyim) can be found in Moshe Idel, Absorbing Perfections: Kabbalah and Interpretation[New Haven and London, 2002], pp. 450-53. Moshe Idel’s discussion of the passage can be found ibid., on pp. 452-60. I have borrowed several formulations from Idel’s discussion, and in general, his analysis formed the basis of my understanding of his position.} R. Isaac asserts that “world” in the rabbinic text does not refer to “the created world,” and “time” in the text does not refer to “the span of two thousand years.” His words are as follows:

I the young Isaac of Acre, have been reading the portion of Genesis in the secrets of the Torah by our master Nahmanides, blessed be his memory. And while reading that the Torah preceded the creation of the world by two thousand years, and that a black fire was written on a white fire, I understood the secret of the matter, and I thirsted to placate the wrath of the difficult questions of the philosophers who said that the number of the days and years depends upon time, and time depends upon the motions of the sun and moon and stars, as it is said: “Let them be for signs and for seasons, for days and for years (Genesis 1:14).” Because upon their motions and revolutions the “measures of time depend, (and) how can we mention years before the existence of the sphere (earth)? ....
Because of this problem, R. Isaac of Acre proceeds to give a non-literal kabalistic/symbolic interpretation of the rabbinic dictum. …
And those two thousand years by which it had been mentioned that the Torah preceded the world hint at Hesed and Binah, and this world is Tiferet, as it is said that immediately with the emanation of Hokhmah the Torah was emanated because H[okhmah] is the Torah, and the Torah is H[okhmah] and it was written by black fire on the white fire, not by a fire, as it is believed by those of little faith who speak about the righteous in a boastful manner, thinking that all the sayings of the sages, blessed be their memory, all concern the sensible fire and concern the [two thousand] years that they are dependent upon the motions of the spheres of the firmament and of the planets. However, this is a fire that is not a fire, as it is said by the Sages, of blessed memory….So too is the matter of this fire, the black fire hints at the attribute of judgment, which is B[inah], and the white fire hints at the attribute of mercy, which is H[okhmah]….

In other words, since “world” (‘olam) does not denote the created world, and “two thousand years” does not refer to time that is measured, there is no longer a contradiction between this statement and the philosophic notions of time and causality. R. Isaac interprets the statement in terms of the ten sefirot, {aspects/attributes/powers of God}. Since “world” and “two thousand years” refer to sefirotic powers, the philosophic problem (how could there be a Torah before the creation of the universe?) is solved. The preexistence of the Torah to the world is an ontic, not a temporal, priority.”The white fire” means hokhmah, the second sefirah. This is the white substratum upon which the black letters are written. The black letters (black fire) means binah, the third sefirah, and this material world is expressed with the sefirah of tiferet. Binah and Hokhmah are indeed prior to tiferet, in R. Isaac of Acre’s striking explanation.

Is there a manner in which we can connect the concept of “black fire on top of white fire,” which Ramban, as we have seen, connects to the notion that the entire Torah is a series of the Names of God, to one’s human responsibility to act properly? My colleague R. Baruch Simon, in his book Imrei Baruch (New York, 2005), pp. 3-4, cites Sifre to Deuteronomy 34:2. The Sifre (Piska 343) goes as follows:

At His right hand was a fiery law unto them…Just as fire leaves a mark upon the body of one who uses it, so the words of Torah leave a mark upon the body of him that uses them. Just as those who work with fire are recognizable among other people, so disciples of the wise are recognized by their manner of walking, by their speech, and by their outdoor dress.

R. Simon, (ad loc.) in this vein cites the comment ascribed to the Vilna Gaon to Deuteronomy 28:10, which states: And all the peoples of the earth shall see that the L-RD’s name is proclaimed over you, and they shall stand in fear of you. The Vilna Gaon is purported to have remarked that the interpretation of the verse consists in the notion that one who is truly imbued with fear of God, one in whom “the L-RD’s name is proclaimed over him,” will have a inevitable impact upon all those who see him, such that others will come to fear God as well.

In the tradition of (re) interpreting a kabalistic utterance in a ethical/homiletic vein, we may conclude and can say that when one realizes that the Torah, esh-dat, the document which consists of the Names of God and was written “with black fire on top of white fire,” has the potential capacity of “proclaiming the L-Rd’s name all over him,” one will be spurred on to speak and act in a matter befitting one who is studying such a document. This should be our point of departure as we begin a new year with the reading of Parashat Bereshit.

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