What Is the Torah?

Book 1: Genesis (in Hebrew, Berashit)
The first book contains the fundamental understanding of how we relate to G-d. It begins, “In the beginning . . . “ with the creation of the world. We then witness the creation of the first person, Adam.
We read about Noah and the story of the ark and the flood. Next we are introduced to our forefathers and foremothers, beginning with Abraham (Avraham Avinu, the father of the Jewish people). From Abraham and his wife, Sarah, comes Isaac (Yitzhak). Isaac marries Rebecca (Rivkah). From Isaac and Rebecca comes Jacob (Yaakov). He marries Rachel and Leah. From their children will come the Twelve Tribes of Israel. They are Reuven, Shimon, Levi, Yehudah, Zevulun, Yisachar, Dan, Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Yosef, and Binyamin.
In all of Genesis, only three of the 613 mitzvot (commandments) are given: “Be fruitful and multiply” (the commandment to have children), brit milah (ritual circumcision for boys), and “Don’t eat the vein from the flank of meat” (found in the story of Jacob wrestling with an angel). The rest of Genesis contains stories and narratives that teach us lessons we can apply to our lives today.
Book 2: Exodus (Shemot)
The second book is about the enslavement of the Jewish people in Egypt and their eventual redemption and exodus. In Exodus we are introduced to Moses (Moshe). We learn of the oppression of the Jewish people in Egypt and of the famous burning bush encounter when G-d comes to Moses and tells him that he will lead the Jews out of Egypt. (This may sound familiar not only because of the movie The Ten Commandments but also from the Passover Seder.) We also meet Aaron, the older brother of Moses.
In Egypt the ten plagues descend, ending with the death of the firstborn. The first Passover Seder is held, and the Jews at last go free, traveling through the desert on their way to Mount Sinai.
After leaving Egypt and crossing the Red Sea, the Jewish people encamp at Mount Sinai, where G-d reveals Himself to the nation and through Moses gives them the tablets of the Ten Commandments and all the rest of the 613 mitzvot of the Torah. They are told to build the Tabernacle (Mishkan), which is the mobile sanctuary that will be carried with them during the years in the desert. In it will be housed the tablets of the Ten Commandments. And it is there that G-d’s presence will dwell the strongest.
The Book of Exodus recounts the birth of the Jewish people as a nation, for only at the moment of receiving the Torah were we truly united.
Book 3: Leviticus (Va’yikra)
In Leviticus we have a break in the narrative, with almost the entire book dedicated to the concept of holiness. Sacrifices in the Mishkan are discussed in detail. Many laws are provided, including the dietary laws of kashrut, laws of sexuality, and special days such as Shabbat (the Sabbath), Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot.
Other commandments in this book include “Love your neighbor,” “Don’t bear a grudge,” and “Don’t take revenge.”
Book 4: Numbers (Bamidbar)
The book of Numbers tells the story of the years that the Jewish people spent in the desert on their journey to the Land of Israel. Now the Jewish people are living as a community.
A census is taken among the tribes, and the Land of Israel (which the people have yet to enter as a nation) is divided, with a portion allocated for each tribe. But not all is well as the Jewish people meet the challenges of living under Torah law. Miriam, the sister of Moses, errs by speaking lashon hara (gossip, evil speech) and is punished. A power struggle erupts among the Jews, with a rebellion led by Korach. It is put down, and Korach is punished. Miriam and Aaron both die, and war is fought with enemies along the way. Moses is told to prepare for his death, as he will not merit entering the Land of Israel because of a mistake he made in carrying out G-d’s orders.
Commandments in this book include laws of speech, justice, and marriage.
Book 5: Deuteronomy (Devarim)
The events in the final book of the Torah take place during the last thirty-seven days of the life of Moses. Moses knows he is going to die and takes this time to give the Jewish people their final instructions and his predictions of what will happen in the future if they make certain choices. Most importantly, he pleads with them to take the Torah to heart. He reviews everything they have been through together: slavery, freedom, revelation, rebellions, and G-d’s miracles.
Deuteronomy is about taking all that the Jewish people have learned so far and internalizing it. Various laws are reviewed, including the Ten Commandments. And here we are given the Shema, the Jewish credo that states, “Hear O’ Israel, the Lord is G-d, the Lord is One.” We are warned against assimilation, idolatry, and character flaws such as arrogance and stubbornness.
At the very end of the book, Moses delivers his final heartfelt words to the people, and then his disciple, Joshua, is appointed as his successor to lead the Jewish people into the Land of Israel. Moses gives his final blessings to each of the twelve tribes. At last, at the end of the Torah, Moses dies.

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