It says in the Talmud that the Torah is “black fire written on white fire.” These words have been understood in many ways, but they all begin with an image of the fire you can see (the black fire) and the fire you can’t see (the white fire).
This week’s Torah Portion, Matot – Mas-ei, is a lesson on Black Fire and White Fire. The black fire, the story written in black ink upon a white parchment page, begins with the tale of the tribes of Reuben and Gad who came to Moses and said that they would actually prefer not to settle in the Promised Land, rather here where they stood, on the far side of the Jordan River. They were herdsmen, and this looked to be fine land for grazing their flocks and herds. Moses replies: “Do you mean your brothers should go to war while you stay here?”
The Torah has no punctuation marks, no frowning face emojis, to help us understand the tone of Moses words. But, it seems clear that Moses is upset. You can see it in the White Fire of the page. There is a long blank space immediately following Moses’ question. And in that space this moment, and the next moment, and the entire history of the Jewish people hangs in the balance. Moses is thinking, “We have been here before. They are just like their ancestors who feared to enter the Promised Land 40 years ago.” The leaders of Reuben and Gad are weighing their words, “How can we assure Moses and the rest of the Children of Israel that we want only a good home for our families and our flocks?”
And then out of the White Fire the Black Fire returns: the tribes of Reuben and Gad step forward and reply: “We shall build sheepfolds here for our flocks and towns for our children to stay in. Then we will serve as shock-troops in the vanguard for the Children of Israel… We will not return to our homes until every one of the Israelites is in possession of his portion.” And out of that same White Fire Moses hears their plea and agrees.
Reading between the words and beneath the lines of the Torah we find the heart of a nation being born: black fire written on white fire, out of many we have become one.