Moshe’s final words start with a description of מעמד הר סיני:
What is an אשדת?
Everyone reads it like the קרי, as two words. Artscroll translates it as “fiery Torah”. But the כתיב still must have meaning. The only suggestion I’ve seen was from the Mi Yodea website:
Now, that is a fascinating metaphor (“From His right hand, the waterfall came to them [Israel]”) because “אין מים אלא תורה”:
And Moshe alluded to this image in last week’s parsha:
I think this is a lovely metaphor—Torah is life-giving water, but the overwhelming nature of מעמד הר סיני was a waterfall, like drinking from a firehose. בני ישראל couldn’t handle it:
So they needed to hear it from Moshe, כרביבים עלי עשב, ”like raindrops on blades of grass“, as Artscroll translates.
But as we said, everyone agrees that it should be read as two words. אש we know, but דת (translated above as “law, Torah”) doesn’t exist anywhere else in תנ״ך until we get to מגילת אסתר. Most assume דת is a rare, poetic, but still Hebrew word for “law”, meaning the Torah is an אש דת, a “fiery Torah”. What does that mean?
Onkelos still connects it back to the experience of מעמד הר סיני:
And everyone else cites the well known aggadic statement:
Or as the gemara puts it:
“Black fire on white fire”. Sounds impressive. What does it mean?
The Ramban says it’s a metaphor for the mystical concept that the Torah was, before being given to humanity, simply the Name of G-d. “Black on White” hints to its incomprehensibility; “Fire” hints to its inaccessibility.
The Maharsha apparently reads the “Black Fire” as the text, and the “White Fire” as the background, the subtext:
While I like this explanation, I do not see it in the Maharsha’s words, which basically echo Ramban’s:
But fundamentally these are
similar answers. There is something about the Torah that is incomprehensible, that we need to “divide it into words” in order to understand it. We’ve talked about the “hermeneutic cycle”—the meaning we get out of a text depends on what we bring into it, and the meaning we get out of the text allows us to understand it even more: משמעות is the literal meaning of the words, when we start only with a knowledge of Hebrew vocabulary; פשט is the “unadorned” text, when we start with an understanding of literature and reading but nothing that makes it “Jewish”; דרש is the understanding of the text in the light of the תורה שבעל פה, and סוד is the understanding of the text in the light of the קבלה.
However, if we know nothing, then a ספר תורה is just black marks on a white background.
אש שחורה על גבי אש לבנה expresses the trancendental nature of Torah as the “mind of G-d”, unknown and unknowable.
Both images, of Torah as waterfall and as fiery law, express this idea that Torah is fundamentally incomprehensible to our primitive monkey brains.