Basic Rules for Torah Interpretation

I thought we’d take a different path this morning and talk about the mechanics of Torah interpretation. I am constantly telling people to read the Manual, yet I haven’t really helped anyone in understanding how to read the Torah.

The following suggestions are from a Bible study class I used to give on interpreting the Torah. I hope it is useful to you.

Essentially, when reading the Torah (or any scripture) we need to look at what the text says, then we need to look at how it says it.

There are 4 different levels, if you will, of interpretation:

1. P’shat- the plain meaning of the text, i.e., what you see is what it means

2. Drash- the homiletic meaning (from which we get the Midrash)

3. Remez- the esoteric meaning

4. Sod- the hidden, Kabbalistic meaning

These levels may not all be present, and generally the Ruach will be the driving force in understanding the Drash and deeper meanings.

One of the keys to working within these levels is to observe and review how well the meanings fit and make sense with regards to the other writings in the Bible. This is called Hermeneutics. Hermeneutics means that there is continuity of meaning. We are told that God is the same now, before and in the future- He never changes. The meanings and statements made in the Bible should also have this sameness about them- if you interpret something in a way that goes against other, established understandings then you should review what you’re thinking. If something in what you read in Leviticus seems to be totally against what you read in Romans, then there is something wrong, or missing, in that interpretation.

That may not be the best example, since Romans is historically used as a polemic against the Torah when, in fact, it is an apologetic, but the point is that the Bible is the same from start to finish and the interpretations should all be hermeneutically aligned.

You need to always use (what I learned as) Circles of Context. This means to know who wrote what and to whom, and to incorporate both textual and cultural context when forming your interpretation.  Don’t assume that the slave talked about in Leviticus is the same type of slave we had in America. At that time, being a Jewish slave to another Jew was more like being an indentured servant than the horrible torture and misuse that the slaves in America during the 16th through 19th Centuries had to endure. Also, words had different meanings. For example, in Mattitayu 5:17 when Yeshua said He came to fulfill the law, the word “fulfill” did not mean to “complete” something but to interpret it correctly. When you look at the surrounding text, He goes on to say nothing will change. Yet, poor interpretation has constantly led people to teach that His “fulfillment” of the law was to complete it, thereby doing away with it forever. Wrong-o!

Another biblical form of writing is the use of repetitive statements, and you need to review these very carefully. When the tribes of  Reuben and Gad asked to remain east of the Jordan, they said they would build pens for their cattle and homes for their families. Later that is repeated by Moshe, but he tells them to build homes for their families and pens for their cattle. Moses reversed the order of possessions. The Kumash tells us that this was on purpose to show that Moses wanted the leaders to understand that family is more important than possessions. By carefully reading the repetitious statements and stories you can gain a better understanding of what was happening. The same thing can be seen in the story of how Abraham’s servant found Rachael. The story has subtle changes between the first narrative of the event and then, later, what the servant tells Laban.

Finally, I would like to offer some tools that I use. Of course, the main tool in your shed should be the Ruach HaKodesh, the Holy Spirit, to lead you in your understanding. But, besides that, it couldn’t hurt to have a few other tools.

Extra-biblical writings are useful, but I offer this with a caveat- don’t forget that what you are reading is someone else’s interpretation and you have to verify it against the original text. One that I trust is Strong’s Concordance (you may need to do some weight-lifting to get in shape to carry that book); you can also use a good Hebrew-Greek-English Dictionary and selected commentaries from established biblical experts (again- they usually repeat what they have been told so verify verify verify.)

There are many different Bibles- the Complete Jewish Bible, the JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh, the NIV, the KJV, interlinear bibles, and many, many other Bibles, all with their own interpretations found in what the text says. I am not against reading different versions; in fact, I think it will help to identify the differences and that will help you to find the interpretation you are most comfortable with as being the correct one.

The Kumash is a great tool. I use it over and over. The one I have is the Soncino Pentateuch and Haftorahs: the quintessential Bar Mitzvah present. In fact, the one I have is from my Bar Mitzvah, and it’s still in good shape. Embarrassingly enough, that’s because I never even opened it until I came to know Messiah Yeshua, but (at least) I kept it.

Ultimately, however you do it,  you need to study the Word of God. All of it, from Genesis to Revelations. Heck- you should even take a gander at the maps, now and then, if for no other reason than to be able to picture in your mind where these events are taking place.

Read the Word, study the Word, and get to know the Word, intimately. It is the sword of God, and without knowing what God has told us, through human writings, you can’t possibly be prepared for what is coming.

When you go to a baseball game, they tell you, “Get your scorecards- you can’t tell the players without a scorecard!” If you don’t know what God is telling us about the Messiah, what God is all about (He tells us all about Himself in the Bible) or what evidence there will be of the coming Acharit HaYamim (End Days, Judgement Days), you will not know how to protect your soul from the Enemy.

The Enemy will not come right out and announce himself- he will sneak in behind someone else and slowly, carefully lead you into taking the mark and being forever cursed. If you don’t know the warning signs, you won’t know how to avoid damnation. It’s that simple.

Take your Bible and read it; study it; know it; otherwise, you better have a good supply of Coppertone.

Parashah Vayeshev (and he dwelt) ) Genesis 37:1 – 40:23

It seems that every parasha I read has more than I could ever write or speak about in less than a tome.

On Fridays I always go through the readings: first I read, then I glance through, and finally (if I still need to) I scan. I read comments in my Chumash and wait for the Ruach to reveal something to me. Today what I feel I want to talk about is not a specific part of this reading, but a generic lesson we can learn from the story of Joseph’s life:

When you always do what is right, and do them wisely, things will turn out right for you.

Joseph showed a divine wisdom when he was older, but as a child I think we can question his common sense because he went to his brothers and told them his dreams, dreams in which he announces they will all be subjugated to him. He even tells his father, Jacob, that he will bow down to his own son. Jacob chides him for even thinking such a disrespectful thought. We can also wonder if he was a dutiful son or a tattle-tale; we are told he gave a bad report about his brothers, so if he did that once can’t we assume it wasn’t a singular event?

I think he was a bit of a spoiled brat, myself. Why? Well, let’s look at his father and grandfather- Jacob was a Momma’s boy, as was his father, Isaac, before him. Isaac was the favorite of his father and Jacob was the favorite of his mother, Isaac lied about his marriage (“my wife is my sister”), Jacob lied about himself (“I am your son, Esau”- right!), so why not think that Joseph, noted in the Bible as Jacob’s favorite (coat of many colors and all) would follow in the footsteps, if you will, of his ancestors?

I am not being disrespectful here, at least, that is not my intent. The Bible is not a fairy tale book where the hero’s are perfect in every way. Joseph did what was right in reporting on his brothers if they did, indeed, screw-up royally. However, it wasn’t the wisest thing to do, and the telling of his dreams was just plain stupid. I mean, really- “Hey guys, I know you hate my guts, but I had a dream and one day you will all bow down before me. Ain’t that cool?”  Sheesh- where were his brains?

So, Joseph is setting himself up for a fall and it comes when he is all alone in the desert with those that hate him. Reuben plans to rescue him later, Judah also helps to keep him alive (remember what Shimon and Levi did, so there was a real threat to Joseph’s life) but God intervenes and takes Joseph away from his brothers and sets him on the path to salvation. Not his own salvation but the salvation of God’s Chosen people, even though there were only about 70 or so of them. At that time, though, that was all of them and they were a nation not yet a nation.

Doing the right thing the right way was the lesson Joseph learned, and it started with his life of slavery, lasting throughout the rest of his days. Evidently he learned from the way his brothers treated him that being right isn’t always the end-all of it. I had been told once, and this is one of the most valuable lessons I was ever given (which I am still trying to learn to use), that what I said was almost always the right thing, but I just never said it the right way. Essentially, I may have been right in what I said about things but because I didn’t use wisdom in how I said it the point was lost in the emotional “stir” I created by the way I said it.  Joseph seems to have learned this lesson. It is shown in how he gained the trust of Potiphar, how he addressed the Baker and Cup Bearer, and in how he talked to Pharaoh. I like how Joseph suggested to Pharaoh that Pharaoh should find someone with wisdom to run the collection of food, while here he is, telling Pharaoh the meaning of the dreams that no one else can interpret. That’s like saying I am obviously the only one here who can handle this, and you should find someone who is capable of doing what I am doing to run this program I am designing.

And it worked. His wisdom in telling Pharaoh about the dreams, the solution to the problem, and how Pharaoh should approach it pretty much assured that he would be appointed.

Finally, Joseph did the most proper and forgiving thing, demonstrating his fullness of faith, spirit, and compassion, in that he forgave his brothers because he understood that God runs the show, and that what they did for evil God turned to good because He can! Joseph learned that doing the right thing, the right way, and always accepting that God is behind everything, led him from slavery to the second highest position of power and authority in the known world at that time. Yet he remained humble, respectful and compassionate.

They say that absolute power corrupts absolutely. I couldn’t agree more, if and when that power is based on human activities. When we think we are the source of our power, it will corrupt us. Joseph teaches us that power does not have to corrupt when we realize the source of that power is God, that God put us where we are, God is really the powerful one (we are nothing more than a conduit: empty inside, so that His power can flow through us) and God is in charge. He can take that power away in a heartbeat (remember Nebuchadnezzar? He went from the most powerful ruler in the world to eating grass like a donkey.)

Do what God tells us is right, always. Ask God to guide you with His Ruach; do what you know He wants you to do, in a Godly way, and even if you are in slavery (whatever kind of “slavery” that may be) you will accomplish great things for God. Who knows who we can save, who we can influence, or who we can lead to salvation simply by obeying God and always doing (well, always trying to do) what is right in His eyes?

Parashah Bereshith (In the Beginning)

This Shabbat we joyfully open our Torah, and just like in this parashah , we begin at the beginning.

This first of the cycle of parashot is a little long, going all the way to Chapter 6, verse 8. It covers the beginning of everything, takes us through creation of man, Cain and Abel, and ends with God’s reluctantly regretting His creation and deciding He needs to start over. The whole Earth is full of sin and wickedness, all except Noah.

What I see in this is the entire plan of God’s salvation. I see creation, the world forming, people coming to know each other and God, then rejecting His rules and killing each other, lusting after their own desires. I see God patiently waiting for people to come back to their senses, which will eventually lead them back to God. But it doesn’t happen. Noah is the only righteous one in the world, and through him there will be a new life, a new beginning, and his descendants will live in a new Earth that will be formed from the remains of the previous one.

It’s not a perfect picture of the Messiah and the Tribulations, true, but I see the same elements in this parashah as we will see when all things come to pass. We have mankind (Adam and Eve) in union with God, but then they break their union by sinning. They are mercifully allowed to live, but no longer in perfect communion as they are ejected from God’s presence. They are fruitful and multiply (one of the more enjoyable commandments to fulfill) but sin is still here, in a cursed world, and although there are some who will form a union with God (Abel), there are those who will not (Cain). And we see that evil will hate and attack righteousness, out of jealousy and frustration. These emotions are the children of the mother of all sin, Pridefulness. Cain’s pride was hurt when God accepted Abel’s sacrifice but rejected his. The Soncino version of the Chumash explains that Abel gave the best he had and his heart was right, but Cain’s heart was not right and his sacrifice was, therefore, unacceptable. Cain’s pridefulness resulted in jealousy, which led to the inevitable result: murder.

Here’s my take on the way things played out, and (if I may say so) I think it is a good template for most every sin:

1.Cain’s pride prevented him from humbling himself;

2. Unhumbled, his frustration grew each time his sacrifice, still unacceptable, was rejected;

3. His frustration grew into anger as he continually saw Abel accepted while he was continually rejected;

4. His anger grows, and without humbling himself he couldn’t direct it at the source (himself) so he projected it against God and Abel;

5. Cain couldn’t do anything against God but he could take out his anger on Abel;

6. Result: the first murder.

Maybe the ultimate sinful expression of our own situation won’t be murder (God forbid!) but it could show itself as gossip, maybe hating in our heart (which Yeshua said is murder, anyway), maybe violence, verbal abuse, adultery, who knows? I believe that pridefulness is the foundation stone upon which almost every sin rests. It is a vicious cycle.

Now the world’s population grows and sin grows with it. There is righteousness, which we see coming through Seth’s bloodlines, but (just like today) the sin is greater than the righteousness. Even in the beginning, those who are God fearing are but a remnant, and it has remained that way even until today. Ultimately, judgement comes with only one chance of survival, and that is through only one man, Noah.

I am not saying that Noah is the Messiah, or ever was supposed to be. What I am saying is just that I see the plan of salvation being shown to us, in a way, in this parashah. It is a “teaser”, like the TV commercial about a new movie shows you pretty much what the story is about, without giving away the details. Creation, sin, loss of perfect communion with God, sin vs. right throughout the world, one righteous man chosen to begin a new relationship with God, judgement and destruction, renewal and a new beginning on a new Earth.

Of course, with Noah things started going downhill almost right away. We can be thankful that with Yeshua, and the “real” final judgement, those  of us who are of the remnant (the Believers who follow God’s laws and commandments as He gave them, not as religion tells us)  will have eternal communion with God, basking in His presence. We will see the new Heavens and the new Earth, and we will return to the way it was in the beginning, before sin entered the picture.

Every Simchat Torah we can look forward to what the Torah, and particularly this parashah, is showing us- that we will return to Gat Eden, we will once again be in the physical presence of the Lord God (Adonai Elohim), and we will be eternally joyful and serene.

I love each time I start reading God’s Word all over again.