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Beit Midrash Torah Portion and Tanach Yitro

Matan Torah – Why Fire?

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The Torah describes the fiery nature of Mount Sinai (Exodus 19, 18): "And the entire Mount Sinai smoked because the Lord had descended upon it in fire, and its smoke ascended like the smoke of the kiln, and the entire mountain quaked violently."

The description of the Revelation at Sinai in Deuteronomy repeats the word "fire" seven times, making it a key word throughout the Parsha. Understanding its meaning will deepen our understanding of the Revelation at Sinai.

What was the purpose of the fire? The Torah explains that it engendered anxiety (for the mountain and for the people). Following the Revelation at Sinai, the Torah further elucidates (Exodus 20, 15-17): "And all the people saw the voices and the torches, the sound of the shofar, and the smoking mountain, and the people saw and trembled; so they stood from afar. They said to Moses, "You speak with us, and we will hear, but let God not speak with us lest we die." But Moses said to the people, "Fear not, for God has come in order to exalt you, and in order that His awe shall be upon your faces, so that you shall not sin."

The people withdraw due to the enormity of the occasion. Moshe explains that the purpose of the fire is to cause the people to have fear of G-d. Quite simply, fire leads to fear, which, in turn, brings fear of G-d.

The verses in Deuteronomy describing the Sinai Revelation also strongly emphasize fire and the fear of fire: (Deuteronomy 5, 21-23): "And you said, "Behold, the Lord, our God, has shown us His glory and His greatness, and we heard His voice from the midst of the fire; we saw this day that God speaks with man, yet [man] remains alive. So now, why should we die? For this great fire will consume us; if we continue to hear the voice of the Lord, our God, anymore, we will die. 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?"

These verses reflect fear – perhaps even an exalted fear experienced by the people in the aftermath of the Sinai Revelation and the fire that engulfed it. However, it is also possible that the fire expresses not only being distanced from Hashem, but rather, at the same time, the loving bonds between Hashem and Am Yisrael!

Fire appears in several occasions in the Torah and Prophets, and sometimes expresses other concepts, aside from fear.

As we know, fire does not only consume, it also lights the way. Indeed, this is how the pillar of fire is described, illuminating the path before the people. (Exodus 13, 21) At the same time, it is possible that the meaning is not merely to light the way in its technical sense. Rather, we learn metaphorically that the light symbolizes the revelation of the good and beautiful facets of our world.

Fire can also provide protection as we see in Zechariah (2, 9):"But I will be for it – says the Lord – a wall of fire around, and for glory I will be in its midst."

As mentioned above, fire also expresses love (Song of Songs 8, 6):

"Place me like a seal on your heart, like a seal on your arm, for love is as strong as death, zeal is as strong as the grave; its coals are coals of fire of a great flame!

Many waters cannot quench the love, nor can rivers flood it; should a man give all the property of his house for love, they would despise him."

Fire is a metaphor for love since love is all-consuming and powerful like fire. The verse describes "a deluge of water that cannot extinguish love." The underlying message teaches us that the fire of love between Hashem and Am Yisrael cannot be extinguished, as described in the previous verse.

Within the context of Hashem’s revelation in the Holy Temple, one can sense this love by observing the fire descending from the heavens.

When Hashem reveals Himself through fire in the Temple, Am Yisrael does not react with fear and anxiety, but rather with an expression of thanks (Chronicles II 7, 3):

"And all the Children of Israel saw the descent of the fire, and the glory of the Lord on the House, and they kneeled on their faces to the ground on the floor, and they prostrated themselves and [said]: "Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, for His loving-kindness is eternal."

The revelation of Hashem through fire spawned thanks and joy.

Now that we have gained an understanding of various implications of fire, we can return to the Revelation at Sinai and examine its significance at this watershed event. It seems possible that the fire of the Sinai Revelation symbolized not only remoteness and fear, but, at the same time, connection and love.

It is reasonable to conclude that Am Yisrael simultaneously reacts in two ways: when they saw the raging fire, they felt fear together with a sense of divine exaltation. Yet, it seems that the fear from the blazing fire is actually what shows Am Yisrael the infinite love between them and their G-d. A re-examination of the verses previously cited from Deuteronomy can reveal the following:

21) "And you said, "Behold, the Lord, our God, has shown us His glory and His greatness, and we heard His voice from the midst of the fire; we saw this day that God speaks with man, yet [man] remains alive.

22) So now, why should we die? For this great fire will consume us; if we continue to hear the voice of the Lord, our God, anymore, we will die.

23) 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?

While in verse 22 Am Yisrael expresses the fear of death, in the verses before and after it, the people emphasize something of great import: "we saw this day that God speaks with man, yet [man] remains alive", and, "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?"

Am Yisrael is clearly aware that what it was privileged to experience is not really possible in this world. It is not possible to survive such a consuming event. As a result, the people come to recognize the intimate bonds connecting them to Hashem:

"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?"

It becomes abundantly clear that fire is a symbol of the deep bonds between Hashem and Am Yisrael, bonds of love and an eternal connection. "A deluge of water that cannot extinguish love."
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