By Rabbi-Cantor Cheri Weiss
“Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has sanctified us with Your commandments, and commanded us to study words of Torah.”
It is customary to recite this blessing prior to engaging in the study of Torah. The basis is found in Deuteronomy 32:3, wherein Moses states that when speaking the word of God, he will first sing God’s praises. We refer to the Torah as a “Holy Book,” but it is so much more than that: It is our roadmap for leading an ethical and sacred life.
Each week, a specific Torah portion (parsha) is studied throughout the Jewish world. On the holiday Simchat Torah, we read the last portion of D’varim (Deuteronomy), re-roll the scroll, and start our Torah reading all over again with the first portion of B’reshit (Genesis) Thus, our study of Torah literally and symbolically forms a cyclical basis for a lifetime of learning.
There are four layers of Biblical interpretation known by their acronym “PaRDeS” — P’shat, Remez, D’rash, and Sod. P’shat is the simple explanation of the text. Remez means “hints,” and this study involves looking for symbolic or “hidden” meanings behind the simple ones. In D’rash, additional texts are used as a basis of comparing how specific words or phrases are used elsewhere to enlighten our understanding of Torah. Sod is based on mystical or Kabbalistic interpretations of the Torah.
We may never get beyond the first or perhaps second layer of understanding what the Torah has to offer. But as we progress through the various stages of our lives, we will likely discover nuances and lessons that we had never noticed before. We may read other people’s Torah commentaries or listen to the teachings of a clergyperson and suddenly have an “aha!” moment of insight that completely alters our perception of certain truths. This new understanding may help guide us through the myriad of life’s challenges. We benefit from studying Torah by internalizing these insights and applying them to our own lives.
The Sh’ma prayer that Jews recite in both morning and evening worship contains the following verse:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. And you shall teach them diligently to your children.” (Deuteronomy 6:6-7)
How can we teach our children to love God, and what does that even mean?
These are questions that each of us must grapple with to find our own answers, and those answers will change many times throughout our lives. It is very important for us to teach by positive example so that our own children will learn what the Torah expects of us in terms of ethical behavior. Yet since we are all children of God, we must always do our best to live a holy life based on the Torah’s teachings so that we may always be a light for others.
Rabbi-Cantor Cheri Weiss is the Spiritual Leader of Temple Emanu-El in Honolulu, Hawaii.