Midrash Tanchuma Bereishis
Before we turn to the commentaries on this mysterious notion, let’s explore some of the powerful emotions that black fire on white fire evokes.
Fire is usually threatening and foreboding. On the other hand, light from any source symbolizes great knowledge and wisdom. Black on white sounds clear and definitive. Yet Black fire and white fire appear to be two opposing forces, diametrically opposed to one another.
With these ideas in mind it’s easier to understand the commentaries and the layers of meaning they reveal.
There are two Torahs
The Ramban (Nachmanides, 1194–1270) explains that there are actually 2 Torahs. One is exactly as our Torah scroll is now. According to Kabbalistic sources, the second Torah is made of the same letters reconfigured into completely different ‘words’ – all of which are names of God. We were not given this Torah. The “white fire” broke up the letters in the Torah into the configuration that we have now.
Why didn’t we get the Torah with the names of God? Perhaps because names determine the essence of something. Adam named all the animals because he understood their essence. Shimshon’s father was trying to understand the message of the angel that appeared to him so he asked the angel for his name. Since angels are unfathomable to humans, the angel responded: לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה תִּשְׁאַ֣ל לִשְׁמִ֑י וְהוּא־פֶֽלִאי “you can’t know my name, and he disappeared.” (Judges 13:18). Perhaps we can’t access the Torah full of God’s names because it would give us too much knowledge of God’s essence. Knowledge that we cannot process. Thus the “Black fire on the white fire” may represent the process by which something that is inaccessible and foreboding was transformed into something we could access and embrace.
Two aspects of the Torah
The Maharal of Prague in his commentary “Tiferet Yisrael” (16th century) takes a very different approach. He says that fire represents something spiritual because, as a mixture of gasses, it has no solid, physical form. White and black fire represent 2 different aspects of the Torah. White fire is חסד – loving kindness. It represents the goal of the Torah. כי כל ענין התורה הוא לקיים הטוב האלקי “The whole purpose of the Torah is to manifest God’s goodness in the world.” Black fire represents אמת – truth – that is clear and indisputable. כי האמת חותמו של הקדוש ברוך הוא “Truth is God’s signature in this world”. However, this world is largely an עולם השקר – a world of falsehoods. Therefore, while the חסד – loving kindness, aspects of the Torah are discernible, the truth of the Torah is obscured and you have to put in a great effort to find it.
Limitless with limitations
In a sefer called Beis Yaakov the great 19th century Chassidic master, Rabbi Yaakov Leiner of Izhbitza, says that fire represents light. However, sometimes the light is too bright and you need a limiting factor to perceive it.
For example, to see an eclipse you need to look through a pinhole. Another example is our bodies which are the clothing of the soul. Therefore the black light is for our own benefit to limit the white light and transform the Torah into something we can understand. Rabbi Leiner also mentions that fire has another layer of meaning. Fire is something that removes the physicality of whatever it encounters.
Therefore the black fire on white fire represents how the Torah contains many layers of meaning. While some may be incomprehensible to Mankind, others are designed to light up our way and give purpose to this world.