The Essence of Torah

By Leibel Estrin

 

The word “Torah” is related to the Hebrew word horaah, which means “instruction.” It teaches us how to live in a holy way.

The Torah consists of five “books.” Beraishis “Genesis” begins with Creation and describes the lives of the Patriarchs, Avrohom “Abraham,” Yitzchok “Isaac,” and Yaakov “Jacob.” The second book is called Shemos, “Exodus.” It describes the “birth” of the Jewish people through their sojourn in, and liberation from Egypt. Shemos also contains the Giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. The third book, Vayikra “Leviticus” describes the life of the Jewish people in the desert and the service of the tribe of Levi in the Mishkan, “Tabernacle.” The fourth book, Bamidbar “Numbers” continues the journeys of the Jewish people through the desert. The fifth book is called Devorim “Deuteronomy.” It restates many events, and ends with the death of Moshe, “Moses.”

The Torah contains 613 commandments that are incumbent upon each Jew. Fittingly, our sages state that the soul has 613 “organs,” and the human body contains 613 parts. The Torah is the means of establishing a relationship between the infinite wisdom of G-d and finite man. Most of us know that Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. But the fact is, he received the entire Torah. It includes all five books, called the Written Law, as well as the Oral Law that is required to explain them.

For example, Devorim contains the commandment to wear “frontlets upon our eyes.” These are commonly known as tefillin “phylacteries.” But the Torah does not tell us what they should look like, how to make them, or how they should be worn. There are other instances where the Torah only hints to certain commandments. To complement the written Torah, Moses received an entire body of knowledge, the Oral Law, to fill in these “gaps.”

Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi organized this information into the six orders of the Mishna to prevent the information from becoming lost throughout the Jews’ journeys in exile. Since Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi wrote in an abbreviated style, the sages recorded their tradition of learning the Mishna in the Gemara. Together, the Mishna and Gemara are called the Talmud.

When people speak of the “Bible,” they are not only referring to the Torah and Talmud but to other sacred literature as well. In Hebrew, the Bible is known as the Tanach, an acronym for Torah, Neviim (Prophets), Kesuvim (Writings). Prophets consist of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, as well as 12 Minor Prophets. Kesuvim includes Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemia, and Chronicles.

The Bible (Tanach) is a treasure house of Divine wisdom. It teaches us the way that man should live and what happens if he follows his drives.

Toras Chaim

The Torah is called by several popular expressions. One of these is Toras Chaim, meaning the “Torah of Life.” In other words, the Torah covers every facet of life, including:

Agriculture: “You shall not plant the vineyard with mixed seeds.” (Devorim 22:9)

Business: “A perfect and just weight shall you have; a perfect and just measure shall you have.” (Devorim 25:15)

Ethics: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Vayikra 19:18)

Civil Law: “If indeed the theft be found in his hand alive, whether an ox or donkey or sheep, he must pay double.” (Shemos 22:3)

Marine architecture: “And this is how you shall make it: three hundred cubits (shall be) the length of the ark; fifty cubits, the breadth of it; and thirty cubits, the height of it. A light shall you make to the ark, and to a cubit shall you finish it upward; and the door of the ark shall you set in the side thereof, with lower, second, and third (stories) shall you make it.[1]” (Beraishis 6:15)

In other words, events in the Bible are not just “stories” of the past. They are also paradigms, allegories, and models for us to use in the present and the future. For example, Noah built an ark to protect himself from the floodwaters. So too, we must protect ourselves from influences that can overwhelm us.

Noah survived by building and entering an ark. The Hebrew word for ark, teva, can also mean a “word.” According to the Baal Shem Tov, the Torah is telling us to seek refuge in the words of Torah. Those words will give us the strength and the protection we need to withstand the storms around us.

In a third example, the Book of Shemos describes the enslavement and liberation of the Jewish people from Egypt. The Hebrew word for Egypt is mitzrayim. It is related to the word for “limitations” which is metzarim. So in addition to describing the history and culture of the era, the Torah is telling us that we can liberate ourselves from our own limitations. Furthermore, the Torah is showing us how.

Yet there’s another way we can answer the question of why the Torah “came down” in the form of events and relationships, rather than as a list of rules. According to our sages, “Hashem looked into the Torah and created the world.” In other words (and in other worlds), the Torah is addressing very spiritual concepts. When the Torah materialized in a physical world, these spiritual concepts became “enclothed” in a very physical form.

For example, the Mishna (Bava Metzia 1:1) discusses the following case: “Two people came before a court holding a cloak. One says, ‘I found it.’ And the other says, ‘I found it.’ Or one says ‘It is entirely mine.’ And the other says, ‘It is entirely mine.’ Each shall swear that not less than one half of it belongs to him, and they shall divide the value (equally).”

According to Chassidic philosophy, the Mishna is interpreted differently in the spiritual realms. Since cloaks do not exist there, the Mishna is discussing two souls who have come before a court, each claiming to be responsible for a particular mitzvah that was performed down here. Each one wants the merit for the mitzvah. Ultimately, each swears to at least half ownership and the merit is divided between them.

To reiterate, the Torah is composed of many events, stories and commandments, so that it could be learned on different levels. Furthermore, the words of the Torah were given without vowels. This allows words to be read in many different ways. For example, the Midrash says, “It was taught by Elijah: Whoever studies Torah laws every day is assured of life in the World to Come, for it is said “Halichos (the ways of) the world are his (Chavakkuk 3:6). (Yet) Do not read Halichos, but Halachos (Torah Laws.)” In this instance, the sages added an additional reading to prove that studying the Torah’s laws guarantees life in the world to come. The rule is that al tikrei adds, but does not replace the meaning.

Generally, the sages say that there are 70 facets to the Torah. However, on a practical level, they identify five levels of Torah. They correspond to five levels of creation and five levels of the soul. (See Appendices I and II for further information.)

The five levels of Torah are, from the bottom up: Pshat “the Simple Meaning,” Remez “Allusion,” Drush “Homiletical Interpretation,” Sod “Secrets of Torah,” and Chassidus, the“Path to Serving G-d.” How do these levels relate to us?

In the essay “On the Essence of Chassidus,” the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, shares the five levels as they apply to the prayer we say each morning upon wakening:

Modeh Ani Lifanecha     “I offer thanks before You,
Melech Chai Vikayam

Shehechezarti Bi Nishmasi

Living and Eternal King,

For You have returned/restored my soul

B’Hemla               Rabba Emunsecha With mercy, Great is Your faithfulness.”

 

According to the Pshat, the simple meaning of the prayer, we thank G-d for returning our soul to us in the morning. You’ll notice that G-d’s name isn’t mentioned. This is because we haven’t yet purified our hands by washing. Once we have washed our hands in the prescribed manner and rinsed our mouth, we are ready to mention the name of G-d in prayer. Since Modeh Ani doesn’t contain G-d’s name, we can say the prayer upon waking.

According to the level of Remez, allusion, Modeh Ani hints to the resurrection of the dead. Our sages call sleep “1/60th of death.[2]” In this manner, restoring our soul every morning is similar to the resurrection of the dead. Just as we thank G-d for “restoring our soul within me”, we also proclaim, “Great is Your faithfulness” that you will resurrect the dead in the (immediate.) future.

According to Drush, the homiletic explanation, G-d returns our soul to us every morning, and does not withhold it for any “debts” we owe to G-d. So too, we should not withhold an article or our help from anyone due to the “debts” or other obligations that the person may have to us.

According to Sod, the esoteric meaning, the “living and eternal king” refer to the sefirah of Malchus as it is united with Yesod. This indicates that the restoration of the soul comes from a particular spiritual level.

According to Chassidus, the path to serving G-d, we can say Modeh Ani before washing our hands because, according to the Rebbe, “all the impurities of the world cannot contaminate the Modeh Ani of a Jew. It is possible that a person may be lacking in one respect or another – but his Modeh Ani always remains perfect.[3]” This reflects the point of the soul that is totally connected to G-d.

We have just explained one brief prayer according to five levels. These same five levels of explanation can be applied to the entire Torah. While this certainly indicates the breadth and depth of Torah, you can still ask the question, how do we get from learning Torah to the do’s and don’ts of Judaism?

The answer is the analytical tools needed to understand the Torah were given to Moses and handed down from scholar to scholar throughout the generations. This is what the Ethics of our Fathers (1:1) means when it states, “Moses received the Torah from Sinai, and transmitted it to Joshua, and Joshua to the Elders; and the Elders to the Prophets; and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly.”

The chain of scholarship starts from the Torah and continues through the Mishna, Gemarah, Rishonim (early Rabbis such as Maimonides), Acharonim (later Rabbis), and flows down to the qualified scholars who decide Jewish law today.

For example, the prayer of Shema is found Devorim, Chapter 6, Verses 4 – 7 state:

4. “Hear (i.e., Comprehend) O Israel, The L-rd our G-d, the L-rd is one.

5. And you shall love the L-rd your G-d with all of your heart, and with all of your soul, and with all of your might.

6. And these words (shall be) that I command you this day, shall be upon your heart.

7. And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and you shall discuss them when you sit in your house, when you walking along the way, and when you lie down and when you rise up.”

According to these verses, we have a commandment to say “these words” at specific times. But the verses do not define “these words” or “when you lie down and when you rise up.”

The Mishna records the Oral Law that was given to Moses along with the written Torah. It begins to add flesh to the bare bones of the commandment. The Mishna was written in a very concise form. The Gemarah expands upon it. Together, the Mishna and Gemarah are called the Talmud.

In addition to the Talmud, many sages have provided commentaries, which in turn, have been codified into Jewish Law. You can find an example of this chain of tradition in Appendix III.

It is no coincidence that the Torah is called Toras Chaim, the living Torah. The Torah gives us guidance, instruction, and ultimately meaning to our lives.

Toras Moshe

The Torah was given to the Jewish people through Moshe Rabbeinu (“Moses our teacher.”) Our sages state that “Moshe emes vSoraso emes, “Moses is true and his Torah is true.”

The Torah testifies that, “And there never arose a prophet since in Israel like Moshe….” (Devorim 34:10) In fact, two of Maimonides’ Principles of the Jewish Faith are:

  • “I believe with perfect faith that the prophecy of Moshe our teacher, may peace be upon him, was true; and that he was the father of all the prophets, those who came before him, and those who came after.
  • I believe with perfect faith that the entire Torah that is now in our hands is the same Torah that was given to Moshe our Teacher, may peace be upon him.”

 

Some western religions try to mimic the role of Moshe, but fail because they don’t understand it. These religions believe that the prophet serves as a “gatekeeper.” In other words, G-d is too far above mortal man to be involved with his needs. Therefore, He chose someone to represent Him. As G-d’s personal representative, he has the power to grant or deny personal requests. So to reach G-d, you have to go through him (or her).

Judaism rejects this. Judaism teaches that every person is unique and has a special, personal relationship to G-d. When we pray, we pray directly to G-d, not to anyone or anything else. We are permitted to ask Moshe or any tzadik “righteous individual”or departed loved one to intercede on our behalf. However, we don’t have to go to, or through, anyone.

Rather, Moshe served as a “facilitator.” He helped people establish and strengthen their relationship with G-d. His dedication is why the Torah is called Toras Moshe.

There are other reasons, as well. For example, Moshe also showed us what a human being could achieve. For example, a person who always lived on the plains cannot grasp the height of the heavens in the same way as a person who lives near a mountain. The mountain is his yardstick. Similarly, Moshe is our yardstick. Studying Moshe helps us to understand how high we can spiritually reach, and how far above that G-d is.

Yet Moshe’s role goes beyond that of a model and mediator between G-d and the Jewish people. The Zohar calls Moshe the Raya Mehemna. Most scholars translate this phrase as the “faithful shepherd.” But according to Chassidus, it could also be translated as “a shepherd of faith.” Moses nurtured and sustained the faith of the Jewish people in G-d.

According to Kabbalah and Chassidus, every generation has someone who contains a spark of Moshe; that person is the Tzadik HaDor, the “righteous person of the generation.” He watches over the nation of Israel just as a shepherd watches over his flock, and intercedes with G-d on their behalf. The Tzadik’s “job” is to see that you spiritually achieve as much as you can. His focus is on you, your needs, your growth, and your relationship with G-d. The Tzadik’s  job requires total humility and self-effacement. When G-d commands Moshe to liberate the Jewish people, he responds, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh? (Shemos 3:11)” In addition, the Torah testifies, “And the man Moshe was exceedingly humble” (Bamidbar 12:3). Moshe was the paradigm of the Tzadik. This is another reason why the Torah is called Toras Moshe.

Toras Emes

The third expression is Toras Emes, the Torah of Truth. The Hebrew word Emes is spelled aleph, mem, sof. These are the first, middle, and the last letters of the Hebrew alphabet. This teaches us that truth is consistent from beginning to end. The Torah has that quality. It is consistent with its own set of rules from the first word in the Book of Beraishis to the last word in the Book of Devorim. It is also very, very subtle. As we saw earlier with regard to the word vayeetzer, in the creation of man, and as we’ll see now, slight changes in spelling can indicate profound concepts.

Interestingly, modern science supports the Torah’s view of creation. First, there was water, then plants, then animals, and, finally man. The “Big Bang” theory of the creation is also consistent with the Torah. The first sentence of the Torah is Beraishis bara Elokim es hashamayim v’es haaretz. It is usually translated as “In the beginning G-d created the heavens and the Earth.” Translating it as accurately as we can, it reads. “The beginning (of creation) was produced by the Divine power that relates to nature, which first created hashamaym and then created the earth.” The word hashamaym is usually translated “heaven.” But it actually combines two words aish “fire” and mayim “water.” In essence, hashamaym describes a hot gaseous nebula. According to the Torah, this nebula represented the process of beginning. It then cooled and formed the planet Earth.

There are many, many other secrets hidden in the Torah. The keys to unlocking the secrets are the 22 Hebrew letters of the alphabet. The 22 Hebrew letters represent Divine channels of energy. Through these letters, creation came into being. In fact, Kabbalah and Chassidus compare the Hebrew letters to naturally occurring stone, while the letters of other languages are compared to bricks.

In 2007, Dr. Haim Shore, published Coincidences in the Bible and in Biblical Hebrew, which provides stunning examples of how Hebrew words describe the physical attributes of those words in ways that simply could not have been known thousands of years ago. Here are just two of the examples he gives:

The Hebrew word for “water” is mayim, spelled mem, yud, mem. There are two interesting aspects of the word. First, mayim is plural. Second, the word ends with the suffix yim. It indicates balance or symmetry. For example, einayim are “eyes. Yadayim are “hands”, etc. Where is symmetry found in water? Obviously, the Hebrew word is symmetrical, mem, yud, mem. But the molecular structure of water is also perfectly symmetrical, H2O. So the Hebrew word mayim describes the physical nature of water—it is made up of molecules in a symmetrical structure.

Similarly, the word for “ear” is ozen or in the plural oznayim. The Hebrew word for balance scales, moznaim, contains the same root. In other words, the Hebrew words are hinting to the relationship between the ear and balance. Yet it wasn’t until the 18th century that scientists linked balance to the inner ear canal.

Perhaps the greatest testimony to the truth of Torah is the existence of the Jewish people. As a nation, the Jewish people are over 3,300 years old. What’s more amazing is that we have remained a distinct people without the benefit of living in our own land. Even on foreign soil, even under political and economic pressure, Jews have remained true to the Torah. If man made the Torah, both it and Judaism as a way of life, would have faded away long ago. Only something beyond the social and political forces of the world could enable this tiny people to thrive as a lamb among 70 wolves.

There’s another aspect. Virtually every religion was started by an individual who claimed some type of revelation. This individual shared his knowledge with disciples who taught the masses.

G-d gave the Torah to the Jews, through Moshe, on Mount Sinai, the 6th of Sivan in the year 2448. More than 600,000 men between the ages of 20 and 60 experienced this revelation. So did their wives and children. In addition, many non-Jews who had left Egypt with the Jewish people also experienced it. In fact, according to our sages, over three million people witnessed the giving of the Torah. They transmitted what they saw to their children and their children’s children, down through the generations, without exception down until today. [5]

Interestingly, none of the nations of the world dispute this fact. They don’t dispute the fact that the Jews were slaves in Egypt, either. If there are objections to the historical truth of Torah, they typically concern the miracles that took place either in Egypt or at the Sea of Reeds. For example, many people debate the fact that the sea split and drowned the Egyptians. But the fact is, if G-d created nature, then He certainly could change or modify it according to His will.

However, G-d could have as easily ordained that the splitting of the Sea of Reeds take place in a “natural way.” For example, Israeli oceanographers Natan Paldor and Doron Nof,[6] used a computer to model a “wind set down” in which a steady flow of wind over shallow water causes it to move to the sides[7]. The point is that there are many ways to determine the truth of the Torah. But the only way that one can truly understand that truth is to live a life according to its dictates.

An excerpt from the book “Judaism From Above The Clouds.”

Leibel Estrin has been writing about Jewish topics for four decades. He is working as a Jewish chaplain for the Aleph Institute. Leibel has recently published a work on Jewish perspectives and values entitled “Judaism From Above The Clouds.” To read more of Leibel’s writings and to purchase his book click here


[1] In 2001, a respected marine architect performed a computer-aided analysis of the ark using the Torah’s specifications.  To his amazement, he found that the ark met all current United States and international laws for an ocean going barge.  http://www.asknoah.org/html/arkdesign.html

[2] Midrash Rabbah Genesis 17:7

[3] Schneerson, Rabbi M.M, On the Essence of Chassidus, Kehot Publication Society, Brooklyn, New York, 1978, p. 45.

[4] The Providence Journal, April 3rd, 1985, P. A1-A2.

[5] For an exposition of the historical and spritual verity of Judaism, check out http://www.dovidgottlieb.com/publications.htm

[6] “Are There Oceanographic Explanations for the Israelites Crossing of the Red Sea?” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (Volume 73, no. 3, 1992)

[7] The examples provided are just to show how the Torah’s descriptions do not necessarily contradict science. As Jews, we should not rely on such rationalizations or search for  “scientific” explanations to reconcile the text with society’s “enlightened” views.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


*