White Fire and Black Fire and the Mitzvah of Writing a Sefer Torah
With hearts filled with emunah, B’nei Yisrael declared their willingness to accept all of the Torah even before they heard it (Shemot 24:7): כֹּל אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּר יְיָ נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע (All that Hashem spoke we will do [na’aseh] and we will hear [nishma]). And to what is the Torah likened? R’ Pinchas taught in the name of Reish Lakish (Yerushalmi Shekalim 6:1): הַתּוֹרָה שֶׁנָּתַן לוֹ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוךְ הוּא לְמֹשֶׁה נְתָנָהּ לוֹ אֵשׁ לְבָנָה חָרוּתָה בְאֵשׁ שְׁחוֹרָה הִיא אֵשׁ מוּבְלֶלֶת בְאֵשׁ חֲצוּבָה מֵאֵשׁ וּנְתוּנָה בָאֵשׁ הָדָא הוּא דִכְתִיב מִימִינוֹ אֵשְׁ דָּת לָמוֹ (The Torah that Ha-Kadosh baruch Hu gave to Moshe was given to him white fire engraved from black fire, it is fire mixed with fire, carved from fire, given in fire. This is [the meaning of[ what is written [Devarim 33:2]: From His right hand, a fiery law to them).
What do these two ideas have to do with each other? Let’s begin with na’aseh v’nishma. It is taught in Shabbat 88a: בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁהִקְדִּימוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל נַעֲשֶׂה לְנִשְׁמָע בָּאוּ שִׁשִּׁים רִיבּוֹא שֶׁל מַלְאֲכֵי הַשָּׁרֵת לְכׇל אֶחָד וְאֶחָד מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל קָשְׁרוּ לוֹ שְׁנֵי כְתָרִים אֶחָד כְּנֶגֶד נַעֲשֶׂה וְאֶחָד כְּנֶגֶד נִשְׁמָע (When Yisrael said na’aseh before nishma, 600,000 ministering angels came down and tied two crowns to each and every Jew, one for na’aseh and one for nishma). What is the meaning of these crowns? Reish Lakish explained in the Gemara there: עָתִיד הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לְהַחֲזִירָן לָנוּ שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר ״וּפְדוּיֵי ה׳ יְשֻׁבוּן וּבָאוּ צִיּוֹן בְּרִנָּה וְשִׂמְחַת עוֹלָם עַל רֹאשָׁם״ שִׂמְחָה שֶׁמֵּעוֹלָם עַל רֹאשָׁם (In the future, Ha-Kadosh baruch Hu will return them to us, as it is said [Yeshayah 35:10], ‘And the redeemed of Hashem will return, and they will come to Tzion with joyous singing-prayer, and everlasting simchah on their heads’, the simchah [that they had] before will be upon their heads). Clearly, this verse in Yeshayah demonstrates that the crowns represented simchah.
But there’s more to it than that. R’ Nachman teaches in Likutei Moharan 22:9 that na’aseh corresponds to Torah that is revealed while nishma corresponds to Torah that is hidden: כִּי נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמַע הוּא בְּחִינַת נִסְתָּרוֹת וְנִגְלוֹת נַעֲשֶׂה הוּא בְּחִינַת נִגְלוֹת הַיְנוּ הַמִּצְווֹת שֶׁאֶפְשָׁר לְכָל אֶחָד לְקַיֵּם לְפִי מַדְרֵגָתוֹ וְנִשְׁמַע הִיא בְּחִינַת נִסְתָּרוֹת מַה שֶּׁהוּא גָבוֹהַּ וְנִסְתָּר מִמֶּנּוּ שֶׁאֵינוֹ יָכוֹל לַעֲשׂוֹת עֲבוֹדָה בָּזֶה (For na’aseh v’nishma is the aspect of hidden and revealed: na’aseh corresponds to the revealed, to mitzvot that are possible for everyone to fulfill according to his level, and nishma corresponds to the hidden, that which is high and hidden from him, that he is not able to do avodah with this).
The avodah of na’aseh is clear. We say that we will do because the meaning of the Torah is revealed to us and we understand it. A simple example would be זָכוֹר אֶת־יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת לְקַדְּשׁוֹ (Remember the Shabbat day to sanctify it) in Shemot 20:8. However, many words in the Torah appear to be ‘supplementary’ or ‘accompaniment’ to the mitzvot themselves, such as וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל משֶׁה (And Hashem spoke to Moshe…) which appears over and over again in the Torah. Since most of us have no idea how to fulfill the avodah associated with these words, they are beyond us and so remain hidden. Regarding these words, although we say nishma, we can’t yet say na’aseh. As brought out in L.M. 22:10, this explanation provides a deeper understanding of what Moshe Rabbeinu said in Devarim 29:28: הַנִּסְתָּרֹת לַיהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ וְהַנִּגְלֹת לָנוּ וּלְבָנֵינוּ עַד־עוֹלָם לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת־כׇּל־דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת (The hidden ones belong to Hashem our G-d and the revealed ones to us and to our children, forever, to do all the words of this Torah). Indeed, we have been commanded (and we accepted it upon ourselves) to do all of the words of the Torah, not just those mitzvot which are revealed to us at the moment.
Is it possible to move Torah from the category of nishma and bring it down into the category of na’aseh? Yes, we can do this through tefillah, as stated by Shlomo ha-Melech in his prayer (Melachim Aleph 3:9): וְנָתַתָּ לְעַבְדְּךָ לֵב שֹׁמֵעַ לִשְׁפֹּט אֶת־עַמְּךָ לְהָבִין בֵּין־טוֹב לְרָע כִּי מִי יוּכַל לִשְׁפֹּט אֶת־עַמְּךָ הַכָּבֵד הַזֶּה (Give to Your servant a ‘heart that hears’ to judge Your people, to distinguish between good and bad, for who is able to judge this vast people of Yours?). Hearing depends on the heart, and it is as we have learned (Ta’anit 2a): אֵיזוֹ הִיא עֲבוֹדָה שֶׁהִיא בַּלֵּב הֱוֵי אוֹמֵר זוֹ תְּפִלָּה (Which is the avodah that [is done] with the heart? You must say that it is tefillah). Whereas na’aseh corresponds to the Torah that is revealed to us, nishma corresponds not only to the Torah which is hidden from us, but also to tefillah because it is dafka through our yearnings, our devikut, our bitul, our self-negation, that we are able to ‘bring down’ the hidden Torah and make it revealed Torah. Therefore, when we said na’aseh v’nishma, in essence we were saying, ‘We will serve You with the Torah that is revealed to us, and we will pray to You about the Torah that we have no idea about and beseech You to reveal it to us so that we can serve You with that as well.’
Now this process of transforming na’aseh into nishma should be taking place in each of us all the time, on an ongoing basis without end, as it says in L.M. 22:10: וְיֵשׁ בְּכָל דַּרְגָּא וְדַרְגָּא וְכֵן בְּכָל עוֹלָם וְעוֹלָם בְּחִינַת נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמַע כִּי כָּל אֶחָד לְפִי מַדְרֵגָתוֹ יֵשׁ לוֹ בְּחִינַת נַעֲשֶׂה בְּחִינַת תּוֹרָה הַיְנוּ הַנִּגְלוֹת לוֹ וּבְחִינַת נִשְׁמַע שֶׁהִיא בְּחִינַת נִסְתָּרוֹת בְּחִינַת תְּפִלָּה (This aspect of na’aseh v’nishma exists at each and every level and each and every world, for everyone according to his level has an aspect of na’aseh, i.e. Torah that is revealed to him, and an aspect of nishma which is an aspect of hidden, an aspect of tefillah). And every time that we ascend from a lower level to a higher level, we are bringing down some of the Torah that was previously hidden and internalizing it into us as revealed Torah so that we can do it.
This is also the meaning of what David ha-Melech wrote in Tehillim 1:2: כִּי אִם בְּתוֹרַת יְיָ חֶפְצוֹ וּבְתוֹרָתוֹ יֶהְגֶּה יוֹמָם וָלָיְלָה (Rather, he delights in the Torah of Hashem, and in his Torah he meditates day and night). What’s the difference between the ‘Torah of Hashem’ and ‘his Torah’? The ‘Torah of Hashem’ is beyond his comprehension in the aspect of nishma. But once a diligent student of Torah studies it deeply and prays about it meaningfully, it becomes ‘his’ Torah. It goes from being beyond his grasp to being within his grasp, from external to internal, from nishma to na’aseh (see Avodah Zarah 19a). And this process should continue forever as we saw above in Devarim 29:28: עַד־עוֹלָם לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת־כׇּל־דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת (forever, so that he can do all the words of this Torah).
This is how the Torah becomes new each day, as Moshe Rabbeinu says in Devarim 26:16: הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה יְיָ אֱלֹקֶיךָ מְצַוְּךָ לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת־הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה וְאֶת־הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים וְשָׁמַרְתָּ וְעָשִׂיתָ אוֹתָם בְּכׇל־לְבָבְךָ וּבְכׇל־נַפְשֶׁךָ (This day, Hashem your G-d commands you to do these statutes and judgments, and you shall keep and do them with your whole heart and soul). Rashi addresses the obvious question, How can it be understood that Hashem commands us to do the Torah this day? He answers, בְּכָל יוֹם יִהְיוּ בְעֵינֶיךָ חֲדָשִׁים כְּאִלּוּ בוֹ בַיּוֹם נִצְטַוֵּיתָ עֲלֵיהֶם (Each day, they [the mitzvot of the Torah] should be new in your eyes as if you had been commanded about them today).
We have come to understand a great deal, but what does any of this have to with white fire engraved from black fire?
The final mitzvah of the Torah is for every Jewish male to write for himself a Sefer Torah (Devarim 31:19): וְעַתָּה כִּתְבוּ לָכֶם אֶת־הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת וְלַמְּדָהּ אֶת־בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל שִׂימָהּ בְּפִיהֶם לְמַעַן תִּהְיֶה־לִּי הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת לְעֵד בִּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל (Now, write for yourselves this song and teach it to B’nei Yisrael, place it in their mouths, so that this song will be for Me as a witness against B’nei Yisrael). This mitzvah has been codified in the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah 270:1): מצות עשה על כל איש מישראל לכתוב לו ספר תורה ואפילו הניחו לו אבותיו ספר תורה מצוה לכתוב משלו (There is a positive mitzvah upon every Jewish man to write for himself a Sefer Torah, and even if his ancestors bequeath him a Sefer Torah, it is a mitzvah to write [one] of his own).
But a sofer cannot just write a Sefer Torah with no specific intent. He must write each letter with the specific intent of fulfilling the mitzvah, i.e. lishmah. Furthermore, he must write each one of Hashem’s names lishmah kedushat ha-Shem. Not only that, but before he writes even a single letter, the sofer must go to the mikveh and then bind his thoughts to Hashem. If he does not fulfill these minimal requirements, then his Sefer Torah is invalid. It’s pasul. It is pasul because the kedushah of a Sefer Torah comes down only through his intent, through his kavanot. Therefore, if he writes ‘lishmah mitzvah’, i.e. for the sake of the mitzvah, then his writing becomes an aspect of na’aseh v’nishma, as explained in Likutei Halachot (Yoreh De’ah, Hilchot Sefer Torah 2:2): כִּי הַכְּתָב שֶׁל הַסֵּפֶר תּוֹרָה זֶה בְּחִינַת נַעֲשָׂה וְנִשְׁמָע שֶׁמַּמְשִׁיכִין בְּחִינַת הַנִּשְׁמַע לְמַטָּה וְעוֹשִׂין מִמֶּנּוּ בְּחִינַת נַעֲשֶׂה (For the writing of the Sefer Torah is an aspect of na’aseh v’nishma, that he [the sofer] draws down in the aspect of nishma and makes from it the aspect of na’aseh). So, on a spiritual level, what is the sofer actually doing? By writing the Sefer Torah properly, lishmah, he brings down the Supernal Light of the Ein Sof that is at the root of each and every letter and embedding it into the parchment. He is literally transforming the infinite Torah of nishma into the concrete material Torah of na’aseh.
We now come to the white fire engraved from, or carved out of, the black fire. Let’s quote directly from Likutei Halachot there: וְזֶה בְּחִינַת אֵשׁ שְׁחוֹרָה עַל גַּבֵּי אֵשׁ לְבָנָה שֶׁהִוא בְּחִינַת כְּתִיבַת סֵפֶר תּוֹרָה כִּי הַנִּשְׁמַע שֶׁהוּא בְּחִינַת נִסְתָּר הוּא בְּחִינַת אֵשׁ שְׁחוֹרָה כִּי הַנִּשְׁמַע נִקְרָא שָׁחוֹר מֵחֲמַת שֶׁאִי אֶפְשָׁר לְהַשִּיגוֹ בִּבְחִינַת יָשֶׁת חֹשֶׁךְ סִתְרוֹ (This corresponds to black fire on top of white fire, which corresponds to the writing of the Sefer Torah, for the nishma which corresponds to the hidden is the aspect of black fire, for the nishma is called ‘black’ because it is impossible to grasp it, in the aspect of [Tehillim 18:12]: ‘He made darkness His concealment’). He further explains there: וְצָרִיךְ לְהַמְשִׁיךְ הַנִּסְתָּר שֶׁהוּא בְּחִינַת אֵשׁ שְׁחוֹרָה לְתוֹךְ בְּחִינַת הַנִּגְלֶה שֶׁהוּא בְּחִינַת אֵשׁ לְבָנָה, שֶׁזֶּהוּ בְּחִינַת כְּתִיבַת סֵפֶר תּוֹרָה, בְּחִינַת אֵשׁ שְׁחוֹרָה עַל גַּבֵּי אֵשׁ לְבָנָה, דְּהַיְנוּ שֶׁעוֹשִׂין מֵהַנִּסְתָּר נִגְלֶה (He needs to draw down the hidden, which corresponds to black fire, into the aspect of the revealed, which corresponds to the white fire, for this is the aspect of writing a Sefer Torah, the aspect of black fire on top of white fire, i.e. that we make revealed from the hidden).
This enables us to understand a deep secret in the mitzvah of writing a Sefer Torah. By drawing down the Infinite Light that is at the root of each letter, i.e. black fire, and ‘carving out’ a finite, physical letter from it, i.e. white fire, thereby embedding it into the Sefer Torah, we are given the gift of understanding and grasping just a little of what was brought down. We actually experience new comprehensions and new perspectives of Torah that we never had before. How come? Because we will have participated in the process of transforming the nishma into the na’aseh—literally. And as a side point, this is why we cannot fulfill the mitzvah by being given one as a gift or by buying one. The only way to be zocheh to the experience of transforming nishma into na’aseh is to be intimately involved in the writing of the Sefer Torah itself. Concluding this section of Likutei Halachot, it is written: עַל-כֵּן צָרִיךְ שֶׁיִּכְתֹּב דַּוְקָא בְּעַצְמוֹ הַסֵּפֶר תּוֹרָה כְּדֵי לְהַשִּיג וּלְקַבֵּל בְּחִינַת נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע לְפִי בְּחִינָתוֹ (Therefore, one needs to write, dakfa himself, a Sefer Torah in order to actualize and receive the aspect of na’aseh v’nishma, according to his aspect).
We find it instructive that the words na’aseh v’nishma preceded the giving the Torah while the final mitzvah in the Torah is to write a Sefer Torah. These two ideas are like bookends that bracket and give support and meaning to everything contained within. Therefore, if we have the opportunity to be involved in the mitzvah of writing a Sefer Torah, don’t let it pass us by because we have no idea just how much of the Infinite Light will be brought down into our minds.