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Ask the Aish Rabbi a Question

Recent Questions:

What is Torah?

I hear people speak about "Torah study" and "the power of Torah," etc. But I'm not clear what exactly they are referring to with the term "Torah.” Is that more than the Five Books of Moses?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

The word "Torah" literally translates as law or teaching.

Torah is the Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Each book is one-fifth of the Torah. In Hebrew, this is collectively called the Chumash (literally: fifth).

It is called the Five Books of Moses because G-d dictated the text to Moses, who then wrote it down. Moses also plays a central role in the Torah.

Sometimes you will see the Five Books referred to by the Greek word, Pentateuch, which means "Five Books." ("Pent" means five, and "teuch" means book.)

The second, more colloquial use of the term "Torah" includes the entire body of rabbinic literature - the Five Books of Moses, the Prophets and Writings, the Midrash, the Talmud (the compilation of rabbinic teachings explaining the biblical commandments), and even any teaching today based on these sources.

In this regard, Torah is the "constitution" of the Jewish people, covering the totality of law and lore, including lifecycle, business and medical ethics, holidays, family life, etc.

So when someone says, "I'm going to a Torah class," or shares a "Devar Torah" (word of Torah), it is usually meant in the broader sense, not the Five Books in particular.

Human Greatness

I want to achieve greatness in my life, but it seems that I don’t have a lot of natural talent. I also don’t have much money and resources, and don’t come from a well-connected family. I wonder what my future will be and this is getting me depressed. Any ideas?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

In the secular world, it's only the "big" achievements that get attention. World leaders, movie stars and business tycoons are splashed on magazine covers and glorified as symbols of humanity. But that's not reality. Because if you ask 100 people, "Who was the greatest influence in your life?" chances are not one of them will mention an Olympic gold medalist or President of the United States. More than anything, parent and teachers have molded and shaped who we are. Not because of any dramatic, life-changing discoveries. But because they demonstrated care and compassion, day in and day out.

One religious young woman that I know was visiting her family, and a family friend asked her what she plans to do with her life? She answered, “I want to be a good person.”

Another woman I know, with many talents and abilities, revealed to me her secret desire for how she would like to spend her days: sitting in the preemie ward of the hospital, holding babies’ hands and stroking their cheeks.

In life, we can inherit many things from our ancestors: Medical conditions, hair color, money. In Judaism we say we inherit spiritual DNA as well. When our biblical ancestors exhibited character beyond the bounds of human expectation, they ingrained that for all eternity. Metaphysically, that genetic coding has been bequeathed to each of us, giving us the innate potential to rise to those heights. These acts require no money, so spectacular talent, or intellectual prowess.

We possess a great power – of loyalty, sincerity, and true concern for others. Our task is to actualize that into reality.

Better Off Not Created

Why did God create the world? I thought the answer was that in God's kindness, He wanted to give people the opportunity to come close to Him. But I understand the Talmud says we'd have been better off not having been created. Doesn't that imply that creating us was actually a disservice?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Your idea regarding the creation of the world is correct - so that God could give of His goodness to another.

Yet the Talmudic teaching you cite does not contradict this. Rabbi Yonasan Eibshitz (18th century Prague) explains:

Although the phrase is commonly translated as "We'd have been better off not created," a closer look at the original Hebrew more accurately translates as: "We'd have been more COMFORTABLE had we not been created." In other words, had a person's soul stayed with God in Heaven, he would have had an effortlessly close relationship with God.

Now that we are created, we must deal with many earthly situations - which may distract us from the more crucial task of getting close to God. This presents a great challenge - one that each person struggles with (on his/her own level) throughout a lifetime. In that sense, it would have been more "comfortable" had we not been created.

Nevertheless, being created is ultimately for your benefit - because working to earn a relationship with God is ultimately more satisfying than getting it for free.