Torah is a theological document, not a history book and not a scientific treatise. Moral and religious lessons often are presented subtly rather than explicitly. It is a manual of ethical behavior to help us develop our potential and it records encounters between man and Hashem that define our relationship with Him.
Torah is Divine poetry –“a verbal composition designed to convey experiences, ideas, or emotions in a vivid and imaginative way, characterized by the use of language chosen for its sound and suggestive power and by the use of literary techniques such as meter, metaphor, and rhyme” that evoke ethereal and soaring imagery that touch our souls. It is the most condensed and concentrated form of literature, saying most in the fewest number of words. Like poetry, Torah contains multiple meanings and can be understood on multiple levels. And like poetry it can be understood differently when read at different points in our lives and at different times in history. The Torah, like poetry, it is meant to be read aloud. Trup and grammar reinforce the rhythm and the phrasing of the unfolding drama.
Torah is an organic whole. There is an inherent unity that permits the understanding of words and phrases by reference to their meaning elsewhere. Thus, argues Benno Jacob, the phrase “Ayen Tachas Ayen” must mean monetary compensation and cannot mean literally taking “an eye for an eye”(lex talionis --the law of revenge or retaliation ) because the Hebrew word Tachas always means “a substitute for” or “in place of” when it appears elsewhere in the Torah!
Torah law is progressive, and needs to be understood in the context of the time it was given. Having a day of rest was unheard of then. Slaves were considered chattel. Human sacrifice was rampant, as were primitive pagan religious rituals. Shabbos was a radical concept. The Torah treatment of slaves was a giant humanitarian step forward. Prohibition of idolatry and human sacrifice was legislated by Torah law (and manifest in the Akedah story).The existence of one God of Goodness ran contrary to widespread belief in warring deities (among themselves and between Man) who resorted to trickery, murder and evil to succeed.
Location, location, location
The appearance of the same word (or same root-word) in different contexts offers the opportunity for understanding, similar to the Gezayra Shava, one of Rabe Yishmael’s 13 rules of logic for interpreting Torah law. Tamar’s confronting Yehudah with the words haker na (please recognize) echoes Yehudah’s urging his Father Yaakov to examine (haker na) the bloodied coat of Joseph’s to confirm that it belongs to Joseph, who has presumably has been attacked and torn apart by wild animals. What goes around comes around. Yehudah, who tricked his father, was in turn later tricked by his daughter-in-law Tamar.
The proximity of topics (smieychus parshios) provides insight. The prohibition of priests entering the Mishkan drunk appearing after the death of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Aviehu leads some to believe that they were killed by God for entering the Mishkan intoxicated.
Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig offered the idea that the repetition of a word or root-word in a particular section of the Torah suggests the underlying theme and concern. In the Korach story, for example, the word edah (group) appears numerous times referring to Korach’s followers as well as to the representatives of the entire community. Also recurring is Ohel Moed (tent of Meeting between God and his people). Korach’s false edah vies with the broader genuine edah of Jews for religious and political superiority. In the description of Bekurim at the beginning of Parshat Ki Savo,the text repeats variations of the Hebrew word for “to give” seven times and variations of “coming/going” five times. Gifts and giving; coming to the land as if for the first time; demonstrating appreciation by bringing gifts of first fruit are the themes of this Mitzvah.
Recurring Macro Themes and Ideas
The critical importance in our national and personal lives of Mt Sinai experience (i.e., Mishkan as portable Sinai)
Always remembering the Exodus experience
Having a homeland in which to observe our religion
Mitzvos as educational tool
Mitzvos as embodiments of social ideals
Interrelationship between the multiple uses of the number seven
Desert wandering necessity to build independence and self-confidence
Jewish people’s rebellious nature in the desert as reflection of embedded slave mentality…Paradoxically leads to rebirth and morphing to goodness as a result of remembering the experience
Kedusha = holiness = separation= designation, being set aside for special purpose and how it manifests itself in our lives (in time: Shabbos/Festivals; in place: Beit Hamikdash/ Eretz Yisroel; in person: behavior towards others/avoidance of dead)…Book of Vayikra as “how to” manual to live a life of Kedusha
Festivals as times of Kedusha; as times of recognition of Hashem as the ultimate source of our prosperity; and as times of recognition of our common Jewish heritage
Tools of Understanding
Etymology (the study of the meanings and the origin of a word), archaeology and psychology can help us.
In attempting to understand possible roots of the prohibition to “not boil a kid in its mother’s milk”, Rabbi Dr. Sid Leiman, Professor of Judaic Studies at Brooklyn College, cites archeological findings that describe a prevailing Canaanite sacrificial ritual describing the boiling of a kid seven times in milk and the boiling of a lamb in butter. The law is to discourage idolatry, a view shared by Rambam.
Themes of guilt, sibling rivalry, evils of favoritism in childrearing that have become widely known and accepted in recent years today, were embedded in the Torah thousands of years ago.
• Read the text aloud, in any language
• Read the Torah as if it’s the first time—even if you’ve heard and read it before
• Focus on the words and phrases—their repetition, variation and location
• Consider current concepts in translation. Cain experienced a “falling face” (literally); he fell into a depression, according to Aryeh Kaplan
• Allow yourself to freely associate to words, even if you’ve not encountered the interpretation or the idea. Rachamim means mercy. Some have noted that the word is related to Rechem (womb),alluding to the profound mother-child love and caring
• Every translation is, by definition, an interpretation. Compare different translations. Let your heart and mind lead you to your own understanding