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Studying Your Torah Portion

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Studying your Torah portion doesn't have to be intimidating or scary. This guide will introduce you to the basics of the Torah and will help you get your studying off to a great start.

What is the Torah?

The Torah is the first part of the Hebrew Bible (the Tanach), which is followed by the Prophets and the Writings. The stories and laws in the Torah are about 3,500 years old. It is made up of the five books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

Genesis

The Book of Genesis (B’reishit) begins with the story of creation. As God says, "Let there be light!" and affirms that we live in a good world. We read about Adam and Eve and their children, Cain and Abel. The stories continue with Noah and the Flood as well as the Tower of Babel. Then the focus shifts from these earth-shaking events to the later stories of one man, Abraham. Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Leah and Rachel are the protagonists of the rest of the stories, telling the deeds of our ancestors. Each of these men and women are nomads, wandering the land that God promises them, each with their own personal visions and relationship with God. The longest story is the tale of Joseph and his brothers, the children of Jacob. The Book of Genesis ends with the children of Jacob in the land of Egypt, having traveled there for food to survive a famine. They settle there and grow numerous.

Exodus

The Book of Exodus (Sh’mot) resumes the tale of the children of Jacob, now called the Israelites. A new Pharaoh comes to power in Egypt and enslaves all of the Israelites. God selects a deliverer, Moses, to confront Pharaoh and liberate the people. After ten plagues, Moses, with his brother Aaron and his sister Miriam, leads the Israelites out of Egypt. They are pursued by Pharaoh and his army. Through a miracle, they cross the Sea of Reeds on dry land while Pharaoh and his army are caught in the waters and drown.  

Newly freed, the Israelites then proceed to Mount Sinai where they watch Moses ascend the mountain to speak to God. While he is gone, they lose faith that he will return and they build a golden calf as an object of worship. When Moses returns down the mountain with two tablets proclaiming the Ten Commandments, he expresses God's rage and destroys the tablets and the idol. After the people repent, Moses returns to God on top of the mountain and carves a new set of tablets. The people also build a sanctuary for God, a portable tent called a Tabernacle. As they leave Mount Sinai, God's presence rests above the tent in the form of a cloud. With them are the tablets of the law and the many other commandments that Moses reveals to the people.

Leviticus

The middle book of the Torah, Leviticus (Vayikra), examines the laws and rules for those who serve in God's sanctuary, the Tabernacle, which serves as a paradigm for those later in history who would serve in the Temple in Jerusalem. The priests (cohanim) and Levites facilitate the people's worship of God. Among the topics listed here are all of the holidays as well as daily offerings in the form of sacrifices. Other laws, such as rules to leave food for the poor and protections for widows and strangers, are also listed in detail. The most famous statement in Leviticus is: “Love your neighbor as yourself”  (Leviticus 19:18).

Numbers

Beginning with a census of the Israelites, Numbers (Bamidbar) tells the story of the Israelites as they travel through the wilderness towards the Land of Israel, the Promised Land. The challenges resume when Moses and God attempt to prepare the Israelites to invade the Land of Israel and take it from the idolatrous nations, known for, among other things, child sacrifice. After sending spies to scout out the land, however, the people balk at the idea of invading. They lack faith and courage in their mission. For this reason, this generation, raised in slavery in Egypt, will live the rest of their lives wandering in the wilderness. It will be their children, raised as nomads, who will have the strength to stand up and fight.

The trials of the Israelites in the wilderness follow a pattern. The Israelites were rescued by God from Egypt, but they remain devout so long as everything is going well. At the beginning of any kind of hardship, they lose faith and complain that life was better back in Egypt. In response, God stops protecting them. They discover how bad life could really be as they meet with only more catastrophe made worse by God's withdrawal. When they repent, however, the people find God's providence restored. In this way, the Israelites face the challenges of thirst, fire, and wild beasts, as well as the internal strife of rebellion. As the generation of slaves passes away, the new generation, led by Joshua, prepares to assume their inheritance.

Deuteronomy

Deuteronomy (D’varim) consists of three speeches that Moses gives to the Israelites at the border of the Promised Land that they are about to invade and claim for their own. Moses stresses that their relationship to the land depends upon their relationship with God. If they follow all of God's commandments, they will enjoy abundance and blessing. If they rebel against God, they will endure suffering and curses, and they will eventually be exiled. Moses declares the unity of God with the words, "Hear O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is one!" and cautions the Israelites not to imitate the practices of the idolatrous nations they are fighting. Moses tells them that free will is given to each of them—that before each of them lay life and blessing, death and curse. He begs them to choose life that they and their descendents will live for a long time in the land of their ancestors. Moses dies, not able to enter the Promised Land himself.

Study Guide Questions

  1. You have read your Torah portion in English. In which book is it found? Which chapter and which verses? (A biblical citation looks like this: Genesis 1:27-28. "Genesis" is the book. "1" is the chapter. And "27-28" are the verses or lines.)
  2. Once you have found the book, chapter and verses, read the summary of the book of the Torah above. What is the literary context of the passage? What happened just before? What happens afterwards?
  3. Write a summary of the Torah portion in your own words, as if you are explaining it to someone who has never heard of the Torah before. Be sure to explain the who, what, when, where and why of the passage.
  4. Now that you understand what the Torah is saying, try to figure out what the Torah means. What lesson(s) do you think the Torah might be teaching? Remember that all of the stories in the Torah are parables, meaning that they are like fables that have a moral. What do the different things in the story symbolize?
  5. What is the historical context of the passage? What is the same about the historical times then and now? What is different?
  6. Find out from your rabbi, cantor, or teacher what Judaism has to say about this passage. Many people have written commentaries about the Torah. Ask about these commentaries. In addition, ask if there are any practices today that Jews observe that emphasize this passage.
  7. Does the passage from the Torah remind you of anything personal in your life? In the life of your family? What do you think the Torah is trying to teach you?

Don't be afraid to ask questions! And remember…

Early Torah Study takes place every Shabbat morning at Washington Hebrew Congregation at 9:00 am all are welcome and no background knowledge or familiarity with Hebrew is necessary to participate. There is always a sermon given on Friday night and Saturday morning which illustrates how the Torah lives in our time. Take advantage of the many educational opportunities the Temple offers!

Resources for Torah Study

The Torah, A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition (New York: Union of Reform Judaism Press, 2005). With commentaries by W. Gunther Plaut.
Etz Hayim, Torah and Commentary (New York: The Rabbinical Assembly, 2001).
A Torah Commentary For Our Times (New York: Union of Reform Judaism, 1990).
URJ's Torah Study