The word Torah (תוֹרה) has the basic meaning of direction, instruction or law. God the Creator gave us His instructions on how to really live life, via Torah. As He lovingly said, through Moses, “this (אֶת־כָּל־דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת, all the terms of this Teaching) is not a trifling thing for you: it is your very life (הוּא חַיֵּיכֶם).” Deuteronomy 43:47 And in Deuteronomy 8:3 ” . . . man does not live on bread alone, but that man lives on everything that the Lord decrees, לֹא עַל־הַלֶּחֶם לְבַדּוֹ יְחְיֶה הָאָדָם כִּי עַל־כָּל־מוֹצָא פִי־יְהוָה יִחְיֶה הָאָדָם
Humans are born not knowing how to live life, especially how to live life to the fullest, how to live a healthy, happy and fulfilling life, how to treat fellow creatures, and how to please the Creator. The Torah provides that guidance. It is God’s message to humanity, His instructions on any and all aspects of life, both naturally and spiritually. When we live Torah, we live life.
Parents have the moral responsibility to teach their children how to live, as instructed in “. . . impress them (these words with which I charge you, הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ) upon your children . . . “ Deuteronomy 6:7 Sadly, when the parent to child sequence fails to pass down the real instructions of life, children become adults who do not know how to life. And the cycle of instruction becomes a downward, death spiral.
Question: How do you feel about your life today? Are you living every day in exuberance? Do you love what you’re doing? Are you excited every single moment? Are you looking forward to what’s coming up next? Are you living your best life? If your answer to any of the above is a no, maybe or not sure, that means you’re not living your life to the fullest. Living Torah is the avenue to answering a very positive yes to each of these questions. Of course, understanding and knowing what Torah says is key to doing what He recommends.
Studying Torah is vital to a Torah life. If we do not know what Torah says about a topic or question, we cannot live life accordingly. Studying Torah–broadly construed to include almost all traditional Jewish learning–is valued by Jewish tradition as one of the most important activities for both children and adults. Many words in many languages have been written on the why, how, what, where and when of Torah study. Relating to “impress them upon your children,” some say the greatest reward of all is that by studying with and in the presence of children, we try to ensure the ongoing study of Torah, our heritage as “people of the book,” and our charge to be a light to the Gentiles. “I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I will also hold you by the hand and watch over you, and I will appoint you as a covenant to the people, as a light to the nations.” Isaiah 42:6
The word Torah derives from the root yarah (יָרָה) which has meanings of to throw, to shoot (arrows), to point out or show, to direct, teach, or instruct. Unfortunately it has nearly universally been translated as law, which a set of instructions on how to behave is, of course. Our highway law, for example, is a set of instructions on speed, lanes, passing, parking, etc. that are in our best interest. How should one drive so that vehicles peaceably coexist. Again unfortunately, the word law suggests legalistic imposition, with its negative connotation. We fear a flashing blue light behind us; it is a signal that we have violated the law. We fear the fines, the handcuffs, the judge’s verdict, and the prison bars. On the other hand, we are thankful for laws, for the other guys especially, to bring about a more peaceful environment, so that wrecks don’t mar our day. The laws are for our individual benefit. We are not required to obey the law, doing so is in our best interest.
Similarly, the instructions or teachings or directions for life that are bundled into Torah are for our benefit. They guide us to a peaceful, fulfilling, exuberant, exciting life and to generations following after us. No, we are not required to follow the instructions, but doing so certainly has its rewards. Again, the inaccurate rendering of “Torah” as “Law” is often an obstacle to understanding the ideal that is summed up in the term talmud torah (תלמוד תורה”, study of Torah”).
In practice, Torah has several meanings. It can most specifically mean the first five books of the twenty four books of the Tanakh; it usually includes the rabbinic commentaries in it. It can mean the continued narrative from Genesis to the end of the Tanakh, and it can even mean the totality of Jewish teaching, culture and practice. Common to all these meanings, Torah consists of the foundational narrative of the Jewish people: their call into being by God, their trials and tribulations, and their covenant with their God, which involves following a way of life embodied in a set of religious obligations and civil laws (halakha).
The term “Torah” is used in the general sense to include both Rabbinic Judaism’s written law and oral law, serving to encompass the entire spectrum of authoritative Jewish religious teachings throughout history, including the Mishnah, the Talmud, the Midrash and more.
Jewish tradition holds that Moses received the Torah from Sinai, yet there is also an ancient tradition that the Torah existed in heaven not only before God revealed it to Moses, but even before the world was created. In rabbinic literature, it was taught that the Torah was one of the six or seven things created prior to the creation of the world. According to Eliezer ben Yose the Galilean, for 974 generations before the creation of the world the Torah lay in God’s bosom and joined the ministering angels in song. Simeon ben Lakish taught that the Torah preceded the world by 2,000 years and was written in black fire upon white fire. Akiva called the Torah “the precious instrument by which the world was created.” Rav said that God created the world by looking into the Torah as an architect builds a palace by looking into blueprints. It was also taught that God took council with the Torah before He created the world.
A more expansive view is that Torah contains at least the kernel of every truth. But that is not the truth of Torah. The truth of Torah is that we can discern how these truths are to be used to fulfill the Divine Plan. And that can only be found in Torah.
To the Torah believer, the Torah is nothing less than the basis and objective of all existence. It is Life!