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The Five Books of Moses (Chumash)

Genesis (Bereishis)

This book begins with…the Beginning. The creation of the world, the animals, and the first human beings, is described in this book. Creation is told terms that hint at much more than a simple history story. Behind every word and every grammatical nuance might lie the deepest of secrets. The stories themselves beg to be interpreted with a little more sophistication than childish “Bible stories.”

For instance:

The fact that man was created last could teach a few things simultaneously…

• It teaches us that man is the very purpose of creation (the “stage had to be set before the star arrived” see Rashi to Bereishis 2, 5).

• It humbles us (“even the smallest insect was here before.” Gemara Sanhedrin 38a).

Man was created alone (i.e. we all descend from the first couple). This teaches us a few things:

• “whoever kills one soul is as though he had killed a whole world”

• No one could say “I’m more important than you, my ancestor was such and such…” because ultimately, we all descend from one source.

• The greatness of G-d. In the raw material of that single couple, there was the genetic information needed to create all of the immense variety of human life (Sanhedrin 37a).

This book is much more than just a story book about the first murder, the first flood, the first organized rebellion against G-d, or the first generations of the Jewish people. True, there are stories about all of that and much more, but that’s not Genesis’ deepest point. This is the book about the way the world was built; its rules and purpose; its people, both great and small. This along with the Tanach as a whole is the book about G-d Himself. Everything that is ever possible to know about Him is in these pages. But it would take many lifetimes to see and learn it all. Perhaps the main goal when learning the Tanach is to overcome the simplistic grade school understanding of these great people and events and examine them for the first time through mature eyes. Back to the simple “Bible story” level.

Genesis describes creation, the early generations (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the birth of Jacob’s twelve sons and one daughter), and finally the descent of this small family into the spiritual wasteland of Egypt.

Genesis begins at the beginning which was year “0” according to the Jewish dating scheme, that is the year 3760 BCE. The book finishes with the death of Joseph in the Jewish year 2309 (1451 bce).

Many passages of the Torah were written in a way that hides much more than it reveals. If you compare the simple version of the story of Jacob meeting his brother Esau (Gen. 32), with the story according to the oral tradition (see the commentary of Rashi), you’ll see two very different approaches. Of course, there’s no story or description in the Five Books (Chumash) that isn’t true (that’s nothing more than, say, a parable), but what the oral Torah adds is more than just extra detail. It’s a whole approach, it’s a 3 dimensional understanding. The Chumash without the classical commentators (who’s words are based on the Talmud and Midrashim) is nothing more than Bible stories. They seem nice… but on second thought they don’t make much sense.

For some examples, look up the following passages and see if you can find any logical reason why G-d (or anyone else) would want us to read them.

• Gen. 15: 8:17 (Ask: “what do the animals and the sun’s setting and the fire have to do with the conversation?”)

• Exodus 4: 24:26 (Ask: “What does anything here have to do with anything?”)

• Deut. 22:12 (Ask: “What does this passage refer to?”)

Exodus (Shemos)

Shemos can be divided into two sections:

1. Nation-building

2. Tabernacle building

Nation Building:

It’s probably fair to say that the account of the Egyptians’ enslavement of the family of Jacob; the devastating ten plagues; the exodus from Egypt; the escape into the desert and through the Reed Sea (and yes, it is a “Reed” Sea and not a “Red” sea. The Hebrew name is “Yam Suf” – some sleepy copyist somewhere down the line caused this mistranslation); the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai were all necessary ingredients in the creation of a Jewish nation – a G-dly nation.

Just as a person’s identity is often shaped by tragedy – and often in a positive way – so was the nation of Jacob formed and matured by their terrible experiences in Egypt. It was those generations which sharpened the close, trusting relationship the people would enjoy with G-d… because there simply was no one else on whom they could rely. It was in the wilderness that G-d Himself “said all these things saying: I am the L-rd your G-d who took you out of Egypt from the house of bondage: You shall not have other G-ds before me…” (Exodus 20: 1 – 3).

G-d Himself spoke to us. To all of us. That’s absolutely crystal clear from the words of the Bible. There is no ambiguity in reading this. Either this revelation happened and everything in it is the word of G-d, or the whole book from start to finish is a lie.

It was those years in the wilderness, a place where no human beings – much less a camp of more than two million – could naturally hope to survive for long, that stretched the Jews’ reliance on G-d. What gave our ancestors the strength to wander out in such huge numbers into a barren desert? It took great strength to rely on G-d so completely!

It was those years in the wilderness where, free of the distractions of earning a living and building homes, the Jews enrolled in the largest yeshiva in the history of the world. There was nothing to do in those forty years except study and review the Torah that they heard their teacher Moses repeating. That’s how you build a nation.

Tabernacle Building

What’s a Tabernacle? In a nutshell, a place set aside – in the midst of the Jewish camp – for G-d. The temporary, portable version built in the desert was called the “Mishkan” (Tabernacle). In later years, once the Jews had settled and built up the land of Israel, they erected a more permanent structure called the “Bais Hamikdash” (Temple).

The book of Shemos ends at the time of the building of the Tabernacle, in the year 2449 (1311 BCE).

Leviticus (Vayikra)

There are 613 commandments which are described in the Five Books. Of those, 246 appear in Leviticus. That’s a big chunk of the Torah. Dozens of these Mitzvos might seem to be very strange, as most of them are impossible to perform in our generation.

Which Mitzvos are in this book? Mainly the numerous instructions concerning the performance of the Temple service, the laws dealing with Tzara’as, and the process of purification from the spiritual uncleanliness they leave behind.

So why do these laws take up so much space in a book that’s supposed to be relevant for every generation?

For one thing, there was a period of more than 1,400 years when either the tabernacle or Temple stood, which made these intricate Halachos (laws) essential.

Secondly, although one might think that the laws are useless now, the other perspective is that the very absence of a Temple gives these laws and their study added importance. We are taught by our rabbis that the study of these parts of the Torah and the oral law almost stands in place of their observance. In other words, we can’t bring any offeringsto the Temple, but by learning about their performance, it’s the next best thing.

Leviticus ends with a strong and eloquent warning to the Jewish people to keep the commandments…. or else.

Numbers (Bamidbar)

amidbar begins with a detailed census of the Jews in the desert. For the record, there were some 600,000 Jewish males between the ages of 20 and 60.

While there are plenty of commandments (51, to be exact) to be found in the pages of Bamidbar, the “highlights” of much the rest of the book might be summed up with one word — rebellion.

• Some of the people demanded meat (Bamidbar, chapter 11).

• Contrary to G-d’s wishes, they despaired of entering Israel after the false report of the spies (chapters 13, 14).

• Korach and his followers rebelled against the leadership of Moses (chapter 16).

• There were those who complained about the lack of water (chapter 20).

• There was a group that fell prey to the enticements of the daughters of the nation of Moav (chapter 25).

Not an impressive record. On the other hand, there was very little else going on over those forty years. If we realize that these were nearly all the public complaints of a nation of more than 600,000, we gain a new perspective. Think also about the subject of some of the complaints: lack of water or meat, fear of being killed by a powerful Caananite nation…. Living in the desert without a reliable source for food, water and protection would make the best of us think twice about our situation, wouldn’t it?

If anything, the amazing thing might be the deep, silent trust the vast majority of Jews had for G-d the vast majority of the time. There is another point to consider: it’s very rare to find an historical work (much less a religion) that so ruthlessly scrutinizes its founders and early leaders. After all, we are descended from these very Jews and we are the students of Moses and Aaron. If anyone would have had anything to cover up, to save historical face, it would have been us. Yet each year (when we read from the Torah in Synagogue) we minutely dissect and discuss each of their failings and sins. Doesn’t this point lend our Torah credibility?

The book of Bamidbar ends in the year 2488 (1272 BCE).

Deuteronomy (Devarim)

This is the last volume of the Chumash. It is the record of the final will of our teacher Moshe (Moses). The book begins in the final weeks of Moshe’s life, which was the Jews’ fortieth year in the desert, just before their entry into the land of Israel. The book takes the form of a leader giving a loving, yet sometimes fiery farewell speech to his people. Moshe pleads, reasons, and preaches, using every tool imaginable to convince us to stick to the commandments of the Torah.

The speech teaches us how fragile a human being’s loyalty can be how much effort is needed to keep to any path… even a path chosen and commanded by G-d Himself.

“And guard yourselves lest you should forget the L-rd your G-d, so as not to keep His commandments…” (chapter 8, verse 11).

It is a theme repeated over and over again in Devarim: watch yourselves very carefully, lest you should slip; lest you should fail to keep even the most obvious of commandments.

But it also shows us the intense love Moshe must have had for us… and the respect and awe we had for him. For only someone who loves like a father will make such an effort to chastise his child, and only for something which must have been very important. And only a loving nation would quietly listen to and try to absorb the rebuke. Great men have been killed or imprisoned for saying things far less insulting than: “And in this matter you didn’t believe in the L-rd your G-d.” (chapter 1, 32)

“And also with me the L-rd became angry because of you.” (chapter 1, 37)

“And you should know that it was not in your merit that the L-rd your G-d gave you this good land to inherit, for you are a stiff necked people Remember and do not forget that you provoked the L-rd your G-d to anger in the wilderness, from the day that you left the land of Egypt until you came to this place, you have been rebellious with the L-rd.” (chapter 9, 6 7)

Devarim is also called “Mishne Torah” literally translated as the “repetition of the Torah.” Although there are 199 new commandments (Mitzvos) counted in Devarim, there are many passages that seem only to repeat ideas and Mitzvos mentioned before in the Chumash. The entire giving of the Torah and G-d’s proclaiming to us the ten commandments is also repeated here (chapter 5), seemingly without purpose (as though we had forgotten since the last time)!

The truth is though, that according to Jewish tradition, there isn’t an extra word, letter or vowel in the entire Tanach. Even those passages containing nothing more than lists of names contain storehouses of information (see the Gemara Pesachim 62b). Close examination of the book of Devarim (especially with the classical commentators and with the many sources from the oral Torah) will reveal whole new dimensions to the Mitzvos we thought we already knew. There’s nothing extra there either.

Don’t think it will all come easily. The Torah is one of those things that we are told is acquired only through suffering and hard work. Even for seasoned scholars there are passages that take time to understand and categorize. But if one works at it hard enough, somewhere, somehow, a reason will be found for every (apparently) extra word.

How was the Word of G-d transmitted to us? How do we know that the “transmitter” didn’t make it up? Why can’t we add or take away parts…? The Chumash ends with words that place the whole Torah in context.

“There never arose a prophet in Israel like Moshe who knew G-d face to face (There was never such a prophet who could perform signs like) all the signs and wonders that G-d sent him to do in the land of Egypt to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all of his land And (never such a prophet with such influence as with) the strong hand and to the great fear that Moshe made in the eyes of all Israel.”

Who was it that transmitted the Torah to us? Moshe, the prophet who was closer to G-d than any other human being. Why can’t anyone change the Torah? Because no one can ever reach Moshe’s level of prophecy, therefore, we could have no reason to believe any new version over that of the original. Why should we believe Moshe? Because he did all these things, all the miracles and signs. He did them, not in private, but in the eyes of all of Israel! The whole nation saw it. They didn’t just hear about it — they saw it. And then they taught what they had seen to their children…