JUST A THOUGHT: What is Torah?

... The real message of God is not to be found in the black letters that we read, but in the white spaces in between.

‘ALL THIS leads to the understanding of Torah as something beyond mere words in a book’: The Knesset received a new Torah scroll in 2015. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
‘ALL THIS leads to the understanding of Torah as something beyond mere words in a book’: The Knesset received a new Torah scroll in 2015.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
What is Torah? Technically, Torah refers to the Five Books of Moses. But is that what a Jew means when he or she says, “I love Torah”? When we strive to live a Torah lifestyle, we certainly do not mean a literalist, biblical approach, so what is it that we mean?
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz once wrote that while other people have a sense of Torah from Heaven, we see Torah as heaven itself. The Kabbalistic tradition sees Torah as a translation of God’s mind. In his Primordial Torah, Rabbi Nathan Lopez Cardozo tells the story of Moses going up to heaven to receive the Torah and finds himself surrounded by a white fire. A bewildered Moses asks as to the nature of this fire to which God replies that this is His mind. Moses explained that he is unable to take this down to the people. At that point God causes His four-letter name to appear in contrasting black fire. Moses is still unable to do anything with this information. So God causes the four letters to break up again into more words and then break up again into even more letters until Moses was able to read “Breishit bara Elohim!” (“In the beginning God created”).
These words were the ones that Moses was able to take down to the people and present as the same Torah we have today. Cardozo’s brilliant observation is that the black fire, represented by the black letters of our present Torah scrolls, serves on the one hand to manifest the word of God, but can only do so by obscuring the white fire represented by the white parchment. In other words the real message is the white fire, but it is indiscernible to us humans. We need the black letters to act as sunglasses, holding back the white. This would also mean that the real message of God is not to be found in the black letters that we read but in the white spaces in between.
This is why Torah scribes take great care with each and every letter they write. They realize that by adding any more ink to the parchment they are making the word of God too opaque and by subtracting even one crown, they are letting too much of the white light out which will equally obscure the message and blind us to the black-lettered message.
This leads to the understanding of Torah as something beyond mere words in a book. This is why we believe that the Torah is not a history book. Nor is it merely a book of laws or poetry. It is the translation of God’s mind. That translation takes the form of the lore of the Jewish people, but it is so much more than that.
The form and choice of the Hebrew language along with the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs are merely vehicles that best give over God’s message to His listening audience. This is why the Torah can take the form of an ancient agrarian society and still be eternal. Had a group of Japanese people discovered God, God would have appeared to them there on Mount Fuji and translated His mind into Japanese and clothed His thoughts into the history of the Japanese people. But they did not.
What is unique about the Jewish people is not that God chose them. He did not. It is that we chose God. We alone heard God’s call. We alone responded and we alone said “Na’aseh V’nishma” (“We will do and we will hear”). That magic sentiment could have been uttered by any people in any tongue and they would have received the crowns that were bestowed upon us that day.
The theophany of Sinai is an ongoing revelation. It was there that God introduced Himself and set the agenda. We would be for Him a people and He would be for us a God. We would effectively serve as ambassadors of God on earth. Like any ambassadorship, there are many responsibilities but also many rewards, privileges and “state dinners.” God continued His revelation through the prophets and sages. God continues His revelation through Jewish history. Thus Torah is the entirety of the Jewish experience. This is why we say that Torah learning is not merely informational but transformational. It is to interface with the Divine being and the world and come out better for it.
We love Torah because it is a love letter from God to mankind. It is God’s way of involving Himself in our lives. It is an invitation to be a part of Him and for Him to enter our lives. Most of the Jews in the past who suffered martyrdom for their Judaism were not scholars. They were not intellectually motivated by their Judaism. Some were even illiterate. Most never saw a page of Talmud in their lives. What made them die for Torah was that deep intimate connection they felt for God. We often forget that. We take such pride in the intellectual achievements of Jews and Judaism but fail to realize that at the end of the day it is about the heart. That’s why the very last letter of Torah is a Lamed and the very first is a Bet. Together they spell “lev” (“heart”). What God gave us with the Torah is His heart. Let us open ours to Him.
The writer holds a doctorate in Jewish philosophy and teaches in post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot in Jerusalem.