Shavuot 5783: With Black Fire on White Fire


Rabbi Elliot Dorff tells the story of how he was once on a
plane from Boston to Los Angeles when he struck up a conversation with the man
sitting next to him. This man lived in Newton, a suburb of Boston in which many
Jews live. Neither he nor his family was Jewish, but his thirteen-year-old
daughter had many Jewish friends from her public school, and she was invited to
many Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations that year. His fellow passenger told
Rabbi Dorff that he would usually just drop his daughter off for the service
and then pick her up later that afternoon when she called him, but once he
decided to stay for the service. Rabbi Dorff asked him what he thought of the
service. The man exclaimed, “I loved it!” Rabbi Dorff asked him what
he loved about it. The man said, “Well, you have a book at every seat with
a red cover that has the Bible and a whole host of commentaries and so I sat
there for three hours reading those commentaries.” Rabbi Dorff asked him,
“Don’t you have such commentaries in the Bibles in your church?”
asked Rabbi Dorff. “What are you talking about?” he said to Rabbi
Dorff. “I am a Methodist. Sola scriptura – the Scripture alone is what we
are given and are supposed to read.” 

We Jews, of course, have a different way of reading scripture,
mediated through the understanding of our rabbis. At the conclusion of the Book
of Malachi, the final prophetic book of the Tanakh, God enjoins us, through
Malachi  to  זכרו תורת משה עבדי  “Remember the Torah of Moses my servant”. We
have to ask ourselves, “Why ‘Remember the Torah of Moses My servant
and not ‘Remember My Torah’ or ‘Remember the Torah of God’?”

We recall at Sinai the people the people trembled and were
afraid that they would die if they heard the voice of G0d directly. “For who is
there of all flesh, who heard the voice of the living God speaking from the
midst of the fire, as we have, and lived?” In Shabbat 88b R. Joshua b. Levi
teaches that when Israel heard the voice of God directly, their souls
departed.  God brought them back to life
with the dew that God will use to resurrect the dead in Messianic times. Chastened
by that experience, the people begged Moses to act as an intermediary for them.

 “You approach, and
hear all that Adonai our God will say, and you speak to us all the Adonai our
God will speak to you, and we will hear it and do it.” The Kadosh Baruch Hu
agrees. הטיבו כל אשר דברו – “they did well to speak thus,” He tells Moshe.

Shavuot is called “Z’man Matan Toratenu”, the “Time of the
Giving of the Torah”. But who is doing the “giving”? It is clear that Am
Yisrael, the People of Israel, could only receive the Torah through Moshe
Rabenu and not directly from God.

This then is why Malachi calls it “The Torah of Moses” and
not “The Torah of God.” It was Moses who gives the Torah to the People of
Israel through his teaching and interpretation. It was through Moses that
Israel accepts the Torah. Our tradition thus warns of the peril of “sola
scriptura” – of interpreting and trying to understand the Torah as the
unfiltered Word of God, on one’s own, unmediated by tradition. That is why our
Chumashim have a “whole lot of commentaries” that so fascinated Rabbi Dorff’s
seatmate. Our Rabbis teach that the Torah was written “With black fire on white
fire”. It is as if they are warning us, “Be careful, you might get burned. There
is danger in trying to understand Torah on one’s own.” It is a reminder of the
crucial role Rabbis continue to have to teach and transmit the Torah to the
People of Israel.