Marriage and fire…

Ekev: Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25

"At that time, the Lord said to me: “Carve you…" (Deuteronomy 4:7)

We are at one of the pinnacles of Moses’ retelling of the Exodus: the ascent to Sinai and the receipt of the tablets. As often happens in the midrash for Devarim (Deuteronomy), the opening is a question of halakhah: Jewish law. The discussion starts out very clearly, so long as you understand this little bit:

In former times marriage was divided into two stages: The first was Erusin, or roughly, ‘betrothal.’ This was a proper marriage, in so far as the woman would henceforth not be free to marry another unless she were divorced.

Yet cohabitation was forbidden until the second stage: Nesu’in or what we would call ‘marriage,’ i.e. the hometaking of the bride. A considerable interval might elapse between the two. Nowadays these two stages are combined.

Got that? Great! Now listen:

Halachah: When a man betroths a woman, who has to pay for the writing of the document of betrothal? Our Rabbis have learnt thus: Documents of betrothal and marriage are written only with the consent of the two parties, and the bridegroom pays the fee. And this we learn from God from His betrothal of Israel at Sinai, as it is written, And the Lord said unto Moses: Go unto the people and betroth them today and tomorrow (Ex. 19:10).

And who wrote this document? Moses. Whence do we know this? For it is said, And Moses wrote this law (Deut. 31:9). And what reward did God give him? A lustrous countenance, as it is written, That Moses knew not that the skin of his face sent forth beams (Ex. 34:29).

To what time does While He talked with him (ib.) refer? Resh Lakish said: When Moses wrote the law he acquired a lustrous appearance. How did this come about? Resh Lakish said: The scroll that was given to Moses was made of a parchment of white fire, and was written upon with black fire and sealed with fire and was swathed with bands of fire, and whilst he was writing it he dried his pen on his hair, and as a result he acquired a lustrous appearance.

Midrash Rabbah – Deuteronomy III:2

As usual, there are two themes interwoven here: the relationship of G!d and Israel, and the apparently simplistic question of how Moses came to have a lustrous face. Let’s stop briefly at the first issue, and then spend a little more time on the second.

The theme of our relationship with the Eternal One should be familiar to readers by now! And while some of the reason for that is my affection for this metaphor, it is more due to the fact that this is truly a fundamental way of describing that relationship. So what does this midrash lend that is new?

There are two elements of note here: the first is that a betrothal and marriage requires the consent of both parties. This is significant from both cultural and theological perspectives.

Realize that this bit of halachah laid the groundwork for far more equanimity in the marital relationship. Now, while it is easily pointed out that at the time this meant that the parents of the couple were likely the ones having to come into agreement, we must recall that the Law is a "vector" – a direction – to follow, not a point to stop at. That is what makes the Torah a Living Law.

Theologically, applying this law to the marital metaphor underscores the free will and active participation of Israel in the relationship, and also raises the rather interesting question of the status of Moses: as the one who “wrote” the documents, doesn’t that place him outside of the relationship? Perhaps I should leave that as a thorny knot for the reader…

Let’s turn to the question of the lustrous nature of Moses’ appearance. In explaining its origin, the Sages recall the stunning image of the scroll of the Law, written with fire upon fire. Then they give us the wonderfully humorous / sweet image of Moses the absent-minded scribe, wiping the quill in his own hair… Can we keep from smiling at this?

But what does this tell us, other than providing a cute explanation for his "glow?" Let’s break it down a little:

Moses is told what to write, and he must then transcribe those Words into something concrete (albeit Fire upon Fire). This is all with the purpose of sharing those Words with others in a time to come… and in the millennia to follow!

What do these symbols and process translate into? For me, it is that when we selflessly, humbly, take the spiritual inspiration to heart and mind and then put it into action for the benefit of others that we receive the rewards of those actions. Often we are unaware of those rewards: our lives shine to others in ways we cannot see ourselves. And this happens best when we try to be a true, pure vessel for those ideas, those values, those compelling Words.

Then our hair – and faces, our selves – will shine with the touch of heavenly fire that our actions bestow upon us!

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