The Meaning of Torah

The literal meaning of Torah is instruction. Chazal (chachamim zichroinam livracha – the sages of blessed memory) state: yesh chochma bagoyim taamin; yesh Torah bagoyim al taamin – that there is wisdom by the nations believe; that there is Torah by the nations, don’t believe (Medrash Eicha Rabah 2:13)

What distinguishes Torah from chochma (worldly wisdom) so that it is only found amongst the Jewish people?

Mohamed Ali, the champion heavyweight boxer was famed to say: I am the greatest. Yet, when it came to lighting the Olympic flame at the 1996 games, he struggled to lift the flame due primarily to Parkinson’s disease.

Perhaps, though, he could rightly have said: I am the greatest heavy-weight boxer, which, indeed, in his heyday, he probably was.

Secular knowledge is based on mastery of information and if you are the greatest expert, as you can be in for example, technology, science, medicine, sport etc, it is acceptable (if perhaps not ethically sound) to profess to be the greatest.

What is The Meaning of Torah

Torah, on the other hand, cannot be considered in this vein. One who professes to be the greatest in Torah is either not learning properly, or mistakenly arrogant.

There is a principle in Torah of yeridas hadoros (descending of the generations) - each generation is weaker than the previous. As the sages point out in the Gemara (Bava Basra 75a,) the face of Moshe was like the face of the sun and the face of Yehoshua was like the face of the moon.

Whilst we have individuals such as the Gaon MiVilna (zeicher tzaddik vekadosh livracha - remember the righteous for blessing) who were of a stature equivalent to sages of generations way preceding theirs, he was not on the level of the Ramban (Rav Moishe Ben Nachman,) who was not on the level of Rav Saadya Gaon, who was not on the level of Rebbi Yochanan etc.

Because the levels of learning and righteousness of previous generations are so far removed from us and the great sages of each generation toiled to avoid exposing their greatness, it becomes difficult to even make these comparisons. We can only state this principle in as much as it is an accepted mesorah (tradition handed down.)

This concept goes all the way back to Adam Harishon who was the composite of all humanity. But Adam knew first hand that he had been created by Hashem (God) and therefore would surely not have entertained the idea that he was the greatest.

Moshe Rabeinu (Moses) appreciated what the Avos (forefathers) were and that on a certain spiritual level, he had not attained this. He was not even one of the Shivtei Kah (the Godly tribes of Israel,) his grandfather’s generation.

Rashi (Shmos 6:1) points out that Hashem  made it known to Moshe since he, albeit  at the most miniscule level, questioned Hashem’s judgement, he was not like Avraham who was willing to fulfil the will of Hashem and sacrifice his son with no hesitation.

Moshe's appreciation of this, even though, or perhaps because of the fact that, he was the greatest Torah scholar ever, made him the most anav (humble.) As the pasuk (verse) attests: vehaish Moshe anav meod, mikol adam asher al penei ha’adama – and the man Moshe was humble more than any person on the earth (Bemidbar 12:3.)

This understanding can explain the greatest cause of failure of the modern Jewish school approach and why students become Jewed out.

Trying to convert Torah into Jewish Studies - dissemination of Jewish-based information - trivialises Torah and places the teacher in the untenable position of faux expert

Like being taught computer code without relating it to a program, students come to believe that this is Torah and at best place it in the general knowledge box and at worst, see it as irrelevant information.

Whilst there is a valid appreciation of Torah at the level of pure spiritual coding (see Living Torah,) this is only applicable at the highest levels of understanding, the heavenly realm of maleachim (angels.)

Torah must be studied through immersion. It is designed to change the person from inside and out. It is therefore more analogous to programming than to teaching. Torah requires the student to subjugate their whole beings and the more they are able to do this, the greater they become.

This is, in fact, one of the greatest enigmas of Torah, where the greatness of the individual is based on how much they have managed to subjugate themselves and turn their being into a servant of Hashem.

Therefore the meaning of Torah as instruction (of Hashem.) As such it transcends all worldy knowledge and wisdom.

To Meaning of Torah - Part 2

Back to Torah Learning

The Torah Explorer

Give yourself an e-treat of innovative Torah thoughts to ponder for the month and keep up-to-date  on what's new at Sign up for 'The Torah Explorer' our monthly e-zine.