Hello Ask-the-Rabbi Rabbi,

I’m kinda disappointed about this Torah. I keep reading on your site about it being the ultimate divine wisdom. To me, it reads like a book of stories.

If it’s really a divine document, shouldn’t it read more like one of those ancient mystical texts, like the wild and wonderful Zohar or the cryptic and mystical Book of Formation?

—Ms. Stick

Hello Ms. Stick,

Now isn’t that amazing—the Zohar itself addresses your question:1

Rabbi Shimon said:

Woe to the person who thinks that Torah comes simply to tell stories and speak of earthly matters. If that were so, even in our times we could make a Torah, and we could do a much better job of it.If Torah is a storybook, we could write a much better one, the Zohar says. If Torah is just to tell of matters of this world, then the famous people of the world today have much better stories to tell. We should chase after them and compose a Torah from them.

Rather, all the words of the Torah are sublime matters and deep secrets.

Come and see: There is a higher world and a lower world, and the two are in a single balance. Israel is below, and the angels are way above. Concerning those supernal angels, it is written, “He makes the winds His angels.”

That is why, when one of these angels comes below, it must dress itself in the clothing of this world. If it would not do so, it would not be able to enter this world, and the world would not be able to endure it.

If this is so with angels, how much more so with the Torah that creates those angels and creates the entire world—and for which the entire world is sustained. If the Torah would enter this world without being dressed in earthly clothing, the world would not be able to endure.

The stories of the Torah are its clothing. Someone who considers this clothing to be the actual Torah, and imagines that is all there is to the Torah—his spirit expires from him, and he has no portion in the world to come.

That is why David said, “Open my eyes and I will gaze upon the wonders of Your Torah.” He wanted to see that which is beneath the clothing of the Torah.

Come and see: Clothing is visible to all. There are fools who see a person dressed in beautiful clothes, and see no further. But clothes are of value only because there is a body within them, and the body is of value only because of its soul.

Similarly, the Torah has a body. These are the mitzvahs of the Torah, which are called the body of the Torah, and that body comes clothed in earthly stories.

The fools of the world look at that clothing, those stories of the Torah, and they know no more and look no further to see what is within the clothing. But those who know better don’t look at the clothing. They see the body that is within it.

The wise, who are servants of the supernal King, they are those who stand upon Mount Sinai. All they see is the soul, which is the most important of the entire Torah. And there are times when they can see the soul of the soul of the Torah.

Come and see: The Torah has a clothing, a body, a soul, and a soul of the soul.Above, as well, there is clothing, body, soul, and soul of the soul. The heavens and its host, they are the clothing. The community of Israel, they are the body, and they receive a soul that is the beauty of Israel. This makes them a body to the soul. This soul of which we speak, which is the beauty of Israel, this is the actual Torah. And the soul of the soul, that is the Holy Ancient One. All of these unite one with the other.

Woe to those wicked people who say that the Torah is only a story, and see only that clothing. Fortunate are those good people that see the Torah as it should be seen.

As wine must be contained in a bottle, so the Torah must be contained in this clothing, these stories. But you must look deeper, for all the words and all the stories are no more than clothing.

It comes out that you’re right: Taking the Torah as a collection of stories is like talking to a mannequin—the clothes are there, but no one’s inside. Might as well read Harry Potter.

But when you probe deeper to uncover the secrets beneath those stories, only then does the Torah begin to shine. It shines a light so intense, so boundless, that the only way it could enter this world is dressed in these simple stories of Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, Moses and the children of Israel, and many more.

Another Mystery

But the Zohar is a very mysterious work. Even as it reveals its secrets, it creates yet more mystery. Here, as well, it leaves us with a puzzle to solve:

Many holy books have been written to transmit sublime matters and deep secrets of the universe, of the soul and of the Creator. The Zohar itself is one of them. These books exist in our world. And yet, despite the Zohar’s warning, our world continues to exist.

So, back to the same question: If these books can exist in our world without being dressed in earthly matters, why can’t the Torah as a whole?

The answer is thatThe Zohar and other mystical works never truly entered into our world. the Zohar and other mystical works never truly entered into our world. Not without those simple stories. Yes, the ink lies on physical paper, but their true meaning remains beyond our grasp. They’re just not part of our world. They demand that we leave behind our materialistic mindset and enter into a pure realm of the spirit. Otherwise we’re blowing soap bubbles, drawing pictures in the sky.

And the truth is that even those secrets a truly enlightened spirit would gain from the Zohar are still not yet anywhere near the entire depth of the Torah. The Torah is the mind and will of the Creator. How could a created being, no matter how spiritual, possibly see things as its Creator does? An infinite Creator doesn’t fit inside any words or ideas. Not even kabbalistic words and ideas.

So the Torah entered the world in a way that it could be grasped by all those who live practical lives down here, even a simple child. And what’s its deep-diving suit? Those simple stories.

So that when a small child reads about, say, Jacob and Esau, and grasps the lesson dressed within it, the child grasps that which “creates those angels and creates the entire world—and for which the entire world is sustained.” Just because it’s dressed up in some clothes doesn’t mean there’s any less in there. There’s a great big Creator of the universe in there.

The Art Gallery

Now, let’s ask a question:Let’s say we’re the elite. Do we skip the stories and go straight for their secrets? Let’s say we are the elite. Let’s say we’re hyper-spiritual super-holy sages, and we want to learn Torah. Do we skip the stories, since that’s just clothing? What about the body of the Torah—the dos and don’ts: do we skip those too and go straight for the soul—meaning, straight to the secrets taught in the writings of the Kabbalah?

So here is a parable that will help to answer that question. It’s a parable given by Rabbi Bere Wolf Kozhevnikov, rabbi of Yekatrinoslav at the end of the 19th century.

Imagine you are strolling through an art gallery. You come across three people sitting on a bench before a large painting. Each sits in a different pose—one very enthused, one quite annoyed, and the third in utter stillness, mesmerized.

We’ll call them Enthused, Annoyed and Mesmerized.

You ask Enthused, “What’s so exciting? It’s just a painting of a bird in the forest.”

Enthused answers, “Just a painting? It’s magnificent! See how beautiful the artist made that bird! So realistic! And yet even more beautiful than the real thing!”

So now you turn to Annoyed, and you ask, “What’s so annoying? Isn’t it a beautiful painting? Look how lovely the bird and the trees!”

Annoyed answers, “Beautiful shmutiful. My dear friend, I know the artist personally. The artist is a person of deep spirit, a sage in all ways, with a mind that puts the greatest philosophers of our time to shame. And this is what this sage is renowned for? For a colorful painting of a silly little bird upon a tree?”

Fair enough. Now you turn to Mesmerized. “Excuse me! Ummm, person, hello! HELLO!”

Finally, Mesmerized turns and stares at your face, slowly coming back to this world. You say, “Really sorry to disturb you, but, you know, you really shouldn’t be so mesmerized with this painting. If you would know the artist, well, he’s a great philosopher, a deep thinker, and . . .”

“Yes,” Mesmerized interrupts, “I know the artist well. And I am amazed how such a great mind has managed to fit so much brilliance in the details of such a simple scene of a bird upon a tree.”

G‑d in the Details

One of the fathers of modern architecture, Mies van der Rohe, was fond of saying, “G‑d is in the details.” Every good artist knows this. Take the enigmatic smile of the Mona Lisa, or the rigorous detail-work in the hands and wrinkles of Rembrandt’s portraits of the elderly. There’s something about simple details and fine subtleties that allow endless beauty to pour through an otherwise run-of-the-mill creation.

Try this: Take some profound idea you’ve spent much time learning and thinking about. Say, the meaning of life. Or how to achieve happiness. Or “what is love?” Or “what is G‑d?” Or even just some new concept you want to market. Now try to explain your thoughts to a five-year-old. Bringing into his language. Use metaphor from his world. Keep to the point, without diluting it, but clarifying it and polishing it until it shines in its simplicity.

If you do the job all the way,Explain something deep to a little kid. I guarantee you will walk away enlightened. I guarantee you will walk away enlightened. You will grasp the depths of your own ideas in a way that you never before perceived. You won’t believe how much that little kid gave you, just by being so darn innocent and simple.

What did the child do for you? The child awakened a whole new depth of intelligence. The intelligence it takes to fit great ideas in small packages. And with that, everything was moved up a notch.

So too, the only mode of expression for the boundless and infinite is in the most simple, concrete, down-to-earth stories. The details, the nuances, they point us to a deeper beauty underlying that simplicity. And as we explore that beauty, we’re driven to a yet more magnificent beauty. And it continues ad infinitum. Indeed, as infinite as divine wisdom may be, far deeper is the wisdom to fit infinite wisdom into finite details.

So that, in that simple story, everything is there. G‑d Himself is there. And even a small child can grasp Him there. As long as you know that this is only the clothing, and that the Master Artist Himself lies within.

G‑d In His World

That’s the stories. But, although you didn’t ask, my answer would not be complete if I didn’t address the pragmatics of Torah.

The practical lessons are a whole new level. They are not just clothing—they’re the body of Torah itself. The clothing is not alive—it only brings out the beauty and the wisdom dressed within it. But the body, every cell is alive.

A soul breathes within that body, a pulse of life driving blood and oxygen into the dos and don’ts. And the very essence of the soul is tied up with that the body.Just as a body without a soul is not alive, so a soul without a body is aimless. Because just as a body without a soul is not a living body, so a soul without a body is an aimless, wandering soul without a home, without meaning or purpose.

A mitzvah, a halachah, is not just something you do or not do. A mitzvah is not just something you do. It is a droplet of the divine condensed and crystallized into physical action.Each do or don’t is another droplet of the divine, infinite wisdom from beyond the heavens, condensed and crystallized into physical actions performed with physical objects by a physical being—you. Immersed within that action, your entire being becomes a vehicle for that which is too great for infinite multiverses to contain. Through you, unbounded light openly makes its way into this world.

Let me put it this way: Just as you can’t build a relationship with a person so long as you consider them no more than a slab of meat, so you can’t feel the depth of Torah unless you look deeply into its eyes, ask the right questions, and then drink in with thirst the words of our sages that await those questions.

And yet you can study a person, and understand as much of that person that is possible to understand, and still not have any relationship with that person. Not until you have done something for that person, something that person deeply desires.

So too, and much more so: You can plumb the depths of esoteric wisdom and beat the angels at their own game—and even then, you are only grasping that which is possible for a created being to grasp. Let’s not fool ourselves—we are mere fantasies of G‑d, a nothingness imagining that it can fathom the mind that conjured it out of nothing. What relationship can there possibly be?

So G‑d says to us, “Do this mitzvah, please, for Me.”

And now you have all of your Creator—even that which defies understanding. In the act of a mitzvah, the created and the Creator become one.2