The Living Torah

by Arliene Botnick, July 31, 2023

There is the written Torah. There is the oral Torah. And then there is the living Torah. As we approach the end of the month Elul and enter Tishrei, we will be completing the Book of Deuteronomy and, on the first of Tishrei, beginning Beresheet. It has taken us a year to complete the reading the first five books of the Tanach (Bible). Those books comprise part of the written Torah. The written Torah includes not just the first five books, but also the Prophets (Nevi’im) and the Writings (Ketuvim). The words of Torah were given to Moses at Sinai, and they are our blueprint of how to live. When we reach the end of Deuteronomy, Moses reaches the end of his leadership –And “never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses.”

The written Torah, the words that were inspired by God, have been the foundation of our Jewish life for some 3000 years. But of course, there’s are also the oral Torah … the compilation, ultimately written down in the Mishnah and Gemara (the Talmud) of the oral discussions of our Rabbis during the first 500 years of the Common Era. They are the interpretations and understandings that our Rabbis discussed to help us understand what the lessons are of the written Torah.

The discussions and the understanding of written Torah did not end at that point, but continued up until the present, with modern day responsa helping us understand the answers to questions that we still need to ask in this modern world. And the Rabbis can help us find those answers in that ancient Torah. As Ben Bag Bag wrote: “Turn it and turn it for everything is in it (Pirkei Avot 5:34)

And that brings us to the living Torah. The living Torah is us. The words written, with God’s inspiration by Moses, the interpretations of the Rabbis over the centuries, have to be more than just words on pieces of paper, or on scrolls of parchment. The words cannot just be words that are read once a week when we go to synagogue or occasionally when we do Bible study. The words of Torah, both written and oral, can only live on if we live them. First, we have to study and have to know what is said, and why it said, and then we have to bring those words into actions in our lives, in the way we live, in the way we interact with one another. The commandments, the mitzvot, are only meaningful if we understand, respect them and incorporate them as part of our lives. As we complete the book of Deuteronomy and have read weekly the parashiot and the thematically connected portions of the haftarah, hopefully those words have become part of our lives.

We can be challenged by words of Torah. we can disagree with them, we can argue with them, but ultimately, we have to live our lives as Jews understanding them. The living Torah is us, and as long as we live them, Torah will live.

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