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Home » Shmini

Shmini: Whose Torah is it Anyway?

Submitted by on April 16, 2006 – 4:50 amNo Comment | 2,466 views

Not for Me

“Rabbi, the Torah was written so many years ago. Its laws were never intended for the modern age, for the people of modern technology and enlightenment.” This pearl of wisdom was last dropped in my lap several weeks ago during a discussion about Torah and its laws.

I explained that the Jewish view of G-d transcends the constraints of time. This does not only mean that G-d would have considered our present age when he gave the Torah to our ancestors, but that G-d exists in a dimension that wraps the past, present and future into a single time warp that transcends its own limitations.

Confusing as it sounds, we believe that G-d was actually living in the future when he gave the Torah to our ancestors. The laws of Shabbat, Kashrut and others were given by G-d to us in the present as much as they were given to our ancestors in the past. They were intended for all generations, including ours of modern technology and enlightenment. (1)

Just for Them

A friend of mine once signed up for a course on Judaism, where she studied the laws of Shabbat and kashrut. Her instructor often told her, “Some people actually keep these laws, but you don’t really need to. That’s just for the Orthodox.”

Really? I don’t recall G-d giving a separate set of commandments for Orthodox Jews.torah - innerstream We  were all present at Mt. Sinai, one people, one Torah. It was not only our ancestors and it was not only the Orthodox. We were all in it together.

My Neighbor’s Fault

I am reminded of the fellow who could not reconcile the text of the High Holiday confession with his own record of behavior. How could he read the words, “oshamnu bogadnu, gozalnu: we have sinned, we have betrayed and we have pilfered,” when he was truly innocent of these crimes?

It so happened that his neighbor, Chaim, was a sinner, his friend, Moshe, was a heretic and his boss, Levi, was a thief so he decided to confess on their behalf.  

“Oshamnu, we have sinned,” he would cry, privately thinking, “Yes, Chaim has sinned.” “Bogadnu, we have betrayed,” he would intone, privately thinking, “Yes, Moshe is guilty.” “Gozlanu, we have pilfered,” he confessed, privately thinking, “Yes, my boss is a thief.”

Devolving our Torah obligations onto other Jews or onto our ancestors is not different from confessing on behalf of our friends. First we exempt ourselves and obligate others then we confess their sins while dismissing our own. “Oshamnu, others have sinned.” “Bogadnu, our ancestors have betrayed you.”

Saved by a Miracle

Three Jews once debated their own merit, each insisting that he was the most pious of the group. To prove his point the first one related the following tale. In the desert one day, a powerful dust storm threatened to blind him, so he stopped to pray and suddenly the storm abated. Dust swirled ten feet to his right and ten feet to his left, but where he was standing was tranquil and clear.

The second Jew would not be outdone and related a miracle of his own. Sailing his boat one lazy afternoon, a tremendous storm gathered and threatened to engulf him. He prayed to G-d and was saved. The storm continued to rage ten feet to his right and ten feet to his left , but around his boat, the waters were placid.

Then the third Jew told his tale. He was strolling along one Shabbat afternoon when he noticed a hundred-dollar bill lying on the floor. Jews may not handle money on Shabbat so he stopped to pray. “As G-d is my witness,” he said, “it was Shabbat to my right and Shabbat to my left, but where I was standing it was a beautiful Tuesday afternoon.”

Is it any different when we say that the laws of Shabbat pertain to those Jews to our right and to those Jews from our past, but not to us?


  1. The Torah tells us that our ancestors, while traveling in the desert, built a tabernacle, a portable house of worship, for G-d. The centerpiece of worship was the altar upon which animal sacrifices were brought. Animal sacrifices are perceived today as cruel to animals and a throwback to ancient civilizations. Surely the Torah doesn’t suggest that we, in the twenty-first century, engage in such inhumane, barbaric behavior. Indeed, Maimonides opines that G-d instructed Jews to offer animal sacrifices only because Jews were already accustomed to such practices from their pagan worship, and such sacrifices eased their adjustment from paganism into monotheism.

    Yet more than a thousand years after Jews abandoned Pagan practices, the sacrificial rite continued. Maimonides never suggested that the sacrificial rite should be terminated. Quite the contrary, Maimonides affirmed that in the Messianic era Jews would rebuild the temple in Jerusalem and joyfully return to practices of old.

    With the advent of the Messianic age it will become manifestly clear that sacrifice is a privilege for an animal. To be consumed by divine flames, to be an offering to G-d and to play a crucial role in humanity’s worship is an opportunity for the animal to be uplifted and to be raised to a higher plane.

    Today, when G-d’s aura is concealed, it is easy to view the sacrificial rite as barbaric and outdated. Today it is easy to disassociate from our own tradition and align ourselves with contemporary thought. But we must remember that G-d gave the Torah to us in the present as he did to our ancestors in the past. To G-d, time is an unchanging continuum, which deems the Torah eternal and its laws immutable.

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