The word bible is of Greek origin, possibly a reference to Biblia, a historic port city in modern-day Lebanon that was widely known in ancient times for the superb paper it exported to many parts of the world, including Greece. Bible, then, is a reference to the medium of the book itself, a static form originally designed to function as a record of the past rather than as a living guide for the present.

Torah, the Hebrew word for the Bible, comes from the word horaah, to instruct,1 implying a more dynamic sense of contemporary relevance.

Understood as such, the Torah serves not only as a book of ancient history, but, more importantly, as an instruction manual for life.

In fact, the Zohar,2 one of the foundational texts of the Kabbalah, teaches that while the Torah was formally given at Sinai, it predates that revelatory event and even precedes the creation of the world: “The Holy One, blessed be He, looked into the Torah and used it as a blueprint to create the universe.” As such, the Torah provides a metaphysical template for understanding the properties and purpose of the world and human existence. By studying it, one is brought into direct contact with the foundational elements of creation itself.

The Torah is thus not a mere piece of literature; rather, it is a guide, and it is meant to be studied accordingly. In the same way that a person would not attempt to operate complex machinery without first consulting the user’s manual, the journey of life and human existence in an infinitely complex world requires its own set of instructions for optimal experience.

Following this line of thought, one may rightly ask: If the Torah is an instruction manual for life, why does it include so many stories and accounts of history? Why not just provide a list of commandments, instructing us what to do and what not to do, what to eat and what not to eat, etc.?

The Sages have provided numerous answers to this question, one of which is that these stories are not just tales of bygone characters or events. They, too, are meant to be instructional.3 In fact, when read accordingly, they offer profound insights and poignant life-wisdom to illuminate our paths and help us navigate our lives. Simply put, the stories of Adam, Eve, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, Rachel, Moses, etc., represent the stories of our lives. They were included specifically because of their universal and archetypal resonance, and because they so powerfully express and encapsulate the essence of human experience across the ages.

Accordingly, the Torah is not intended to be studied as an academic exercise. As informative as critical scholarship is, to only read Torah in such a way would be to circumvent its primary function, which is to be a guiding force in our lives, not just a fossil of antiquity.

Conventional thinking is that you can analyze, understand, and even teach a particular body of wisdom without having to practice it yourself. You can thus be a respected academic, considered an expert in a particular field, without ever actually being a practitioner. For example, it is told that Aristotle was once caught by his disciples engaging in immoral behavior unbecoming of a person of his stature. His disciples confronted him: “How is it that you, the founder of a comprehensive approach to ethics, should behave in such a manner?” Aristotle replied, “Don’t confuse Aristotle the teacher with Aristotle the person.”

Torah is different. Torah is a guidebook, not a purely theoretical treatise meant only for academic study. Its primary wisdom is not in amassing ideas, but in guiding day-to-day behavior, life, and practice.

The Talmud teaches:4 “One who says, ‘I have only Torah’ (meaning learning without action)…lacks even Torah. The reason? …The verse (Deuteronomy 5:1) states: That you may learn them and perform them... Therefore, anyone not engaged in performance [of the Torah’s instructions] is considered to not have engaged in learning them either.”

Without integrating the Torah’s wisdom into your life and actions, without, in effect, taking it personally, you may have learned something, but you have not learned Torah.

The Mishnah5 compares one whose Torah study exceeds their good deeds to a tree “whose branches are many but whose roots are few.” Such a tree will no doubt be uprooted by the first passing wind, making it both vulnerable and unlikely to sustain itself long enough to bear fruit. The Torah’s wisdom is designed to center the person, both body and soul, within a confusing and often contradictory world of moral uncertainty. If taken purely as knowledge and theory, Torah will not have its intended effect, which is to anchor us in a life of spirit while we navigate a material world. After all, it isn’t knowledge itself that makes us better people, but how and when we act upon and actualize that knowledge. This is the secret of the Tree of Life.

The Big Idea

The Torah’s chief concern is not how and when the world was created, but why, and for what purpose.

It Happened Once

The Lubavitcher Rebbe once encouraged a man seeking guidance to use his unique talents to the fullest. At a subsequent meeting, the Rebbe said, “I hope you are fulfilling what we discussed. Don’t turn me into a sinner!”

Taken aback, the man asked, “How could I possibly do that?”

The Rebbe replied with a twinkle in his eye, “Our Sages teach that ‘whoever engages in excessive talk brings on sin.’ If our previous conversation led to no practical outcome, it was merely ‘excessive talk.’”