Traditional Judaism begins and ends with the Torah. Whatever one may think of the book itself – the unadulterated word of God or some ancient tribal history slapped together over hundreds of years – it remains the primary document of the Jews. It may have lost much of its relevance over the millennia. It may seem to many the epitome of antiquated. To the modern person, who is used to text messages, emails, news blurbs, books filled with sex and violence, the Torah is pretty irrelevant. It contains long genealogies that lack any obvious purpose and seem to go nowhere. It includes ponderous details of sacrificial offerings, the importance of which is nowhere made clear. The countless commandments for the most part are about as outdated as the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Even the historical narrative sections lack the cohesive continuity of a modern story. But somehow, it has remained the most influential text of the Jews and among the most important books in the world. What is the Torah?
In its most basic sense the Torah refers to the Pentateuch, the Five Books of Moses, which constitute the core of the Hebrew Bible. In a broader sense, the word 'Torah' can refer to the entire Old Testament. In its broadest sense, it is used to describe any authentic Jewish teaching, whether ancient or modern. For our purposes, we shall generally use the basic definition, but will occasionally employ the term in its broadest sense. To avoid confusion, however, another word, 'Chumash', will frequently be used for the Pentateuch; while 'Tanakh' will be used for the entire Old Testament.
Chumash is a Hebrew word that means one fifth. Some have suggested that the actual term should read Chomesh – a nuance that may be due to the curious quirk of Hebrew that a certain vowel can be written in an ambiguous manner, depicting the ‘o’ sound or the ‘u’ sound. Each book of the Torah represents one fifth of the entire Torah, hence the name. It may seem odd that what is arguably the most influential book in human history goes by a title that means ‘one fifth’, but such are the whims of language.
The familiar Latin name for the Torah, the Pentateuch (meaning roughly ‘five scrolls’), reflects this division into five books. These books, according to their commonly known Hebrew names, are Bereshit (Genesis), Shmot (Exodus), Vayikra (Leviticus), Bamidbar (Numbers), and D’varim (Deuteronomy). The Hebrew names are not translations of the common English (actually Greek) titles - rather they are a significant word found in the first phrase in the text. Thus ‘Bereshit’ actually means ‘In the beginning’; ‘Shmot’ means ‘names’; ‘Vayikra’ means ‘And He called’; ‘Bamidbar’ means ‘In the desert’; ‘D’varim’ means ‘words’.
The Chumash, of course, is not the entire Jewish Bible. The Jewish Bible includes the sections of the Prophets (Nevi’im in Hebrew) and the Writings (Ketuvim in Hebrew). But the Chumash is widely considered to be the most important part, and in many circles, the oldest. Orthodox Jews, almost by definition, hold the entire Chumash to have been written by God in a manner that is both fascinating and controversial. Obviously, the claim that a book was written by God is going to be taken with a tremendous amount of skepticism and demands explanation.
The standard Orthodox explanation is that God simply dictated the entire Torah to Moses either during several months of encampment around Mt. Sinai following the exodus from Egypt, or over a 40-year period of wandering through the wilderness on the way to Israel. According to the first version, the entire period of wandering was dictated during the first few months, an obvious impossibility according the normal laws of time and causality. Things simply cannot be told before they happen. The Bible, however, does not necessarily work along these conventional lines.
The Orthodox view of the bulk of the Old Testament is that it was communicated from God to various human beings called prophets. The most famous of these, and the receiver of most or all of the Chumash, was Moses (Moshe in Hebrew). Prophecy was a state of consciousness that was attainable only through strenuous spiritual and emotional training and amounted to nothing less than an entirely unique sense of awareness. The typical concerns of human beings – the weather, one’s appearance, hunger, thirst, the sexual drive, boredom, excitement – all these and countless other ‘normal’ feelings or thoughts – were simply irrelevant distractions to the prophet. This elevated state enabled the prophet to reach an awareness of things that were inaccessible to the normal state of the mind. Among these are purely spiritual realities such as ultimate truth, higher morality, cognizance of one’s purpose, angels, and ultimately, God.
For those who cannot accept any of this, the Chumash is the recorded history of the Israelites from their origins until the death of Moses just before they entered the land of Israel. Academic scholars are divided over when this history took place, if it took place, when it was recorded, and by whom. Conventional wisdom places Adam and Eve a little less than 6,000 years ago, Abraham about 4,000 years ago, and the Exodus about 3,300 years ago. Of course, there is no firm evidence that Adam, Eve, or Abraham ever lived, or that a collection of tribes escaped slavery in Egypt 3,300 years ago and made their way to what is now Israel. All we have is the recorded history of those tribes, written perhaps centuries after the fact. Unlike the Orthodox view, which sees the entire Chumash as the received prophecy of Moses, academic scholars see multiple authors over centuries of time, ending with the book of Deuteronomy completed as late as the fifth century BCE. Such a wide gap in understanding and belief will probably never be breached.
For our purposes all this is immaterial. We hope to explore some of the content of the Chumash and not worry about its historical origins. Sprinkled throughout the text are pearls of prophetic wisdom that still speak to the human soul. If one can understand this wisdom as the unadulterated word of God, it infinitely magnifies its significance and potential influence on those who read it. If one cannot take this leap, the stories, the dialogues, and the expressions can still inspire with great insight into the purpose of life and our reason for being here. But like many other books that are tough to fathom at first and require considerable effort to penetrate, one gets out of it what one chooses to put into it.
Regardless of one's personal beliefs, the vast quantity and quality of wisdom, laws and teachings which Jews throughout the centuries have derived from the Chumash, borders on the miraculous. Beginning with rabbinic interpretations of the late second temple era (a little over 2,000 years ago), rabbis, mystics, philosophers, and countless Jews who never earned those lofty titles, have seen in the Chumash everything from their history to their national identity to their place in the cosmos. Every story, every genealogy, every law, every exhortation, every nuance in the spelling, has left its mark somewhere in Jewish tradition. Millions of religious Jews and tens of millions of devout Christians still use it is a front-line resource for finding inspiration and as a guide for the ups and downs of life. A search for the meaning of life from a Jewish perspective can only begin with one book. All else, no matter how important, is secondary.
We will be focusing on three sections from the Chumash in our quest for sources revealing some aspect of the purpose of life. Unlike most of the other sources that we will encounter in this extensive exploration, none of these sources directly claims to be the true meaning or purpose of life or the goal of creation or any such lofty aim. For better or worse, no such direct source exists in the Chumash. However, there are several that could be read as pointing in that direction. Among them are the three we have chosen. The journey begins...
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