A young friend told me the other day that he is confused, because someone told him the word Torah means law. “I don’t think that’s correct,” he said.
He’s right. Torah, the Hebrew word for the Five Books of Moses (also called the Pentateuch), does not mean law, or rules, or commandments. It means teaching, as in this beautiful instruction from Proverbs: “My child, hear the instruction of your father, and do not forsake the Torah of your mother.” (Proverbs 1:8)
It is a distinction that is especially relevant this week, when Jews around the world read what is usually called the Ten Commandments. But the English phrase doesn’t do justice to the original. In Hebrew, they are not called commandments, but rather the aseret dibrot, or the Ten Utterances.
These precious teachings, which guide so much of our society’s understanding of right and wrong, were given to us as Words from the Divine, teachings to guide us.
Yes, the Torah is filled with commandments that are explicitly called as such. But this week’s reading is a reminder that the Torah is much more than laws. It is a prescription for how to live an ethical life, how to form and maintain a just and moral society, how to take care of one another.
And the Torah teaches us that this guidance can come from other people, as well as from God. Immediately before the Revelation at Mount Sinai, Moses is given advice by his father-in-law Jethro. Jethro worries that Moses will wear himself out by serving as the sole adjudicator of disputes among the people. He teaches Moses how to create a judiciary, a system in which he can engage honest and dedicated people to ease the burden on him.
We can look at the Torah as a book of rules and regulations, but that shortchanges a sacred text and turns it into a mere textbook. Better, I think, to interact with it on an entirely different level, as a guide to living an ethical, meaningful life, one that offers teachings on interacting both with God and with other humans.