Judaism, like many other things, is too regularly compared to and associated with ideals based on popular phrases that have caught on, as opposed to the meanings and intentions of the words used. When people hear the word “Torah,” they tend to think: Old Testament, true in a historical sense but no longer practically relevant, unable to adapt in accordance to societal change over time, and — very often — judgmental and restrictive.
Here are some examples of the Torah appearing seemingly negative or insignificant through that lens:
— There is a concept of slavery that is permissible within halacha (Jewish law).
— The restrictive laws of Shabbos (Sabbath) are based on the types of work that were required to build the tabernacle.
— Koshrut (dietary laws) in mammals is based off of whether or not their feet and stomach(s) make up a certain anatomical structure.
— Not being allowed to include yourself in what secular people do because of Mares Ayin, which implies that a forbidden action is permitted to a bystander based only upon not being seen.
In plain text and at first glance, these commandments are tedious, offensive, overbearing, and irrelevant to daily living. But when we research the contexts and meanings of these things individually, there is beauty and inspiration in every one of them.
Slavery in the context of the Torah is not the same as what we associate it with and is only allowed in very specific circumstances in which the “slave” and his family must be financially supported, stable, and comfortable. So much so that if the “owner” has only one mattress and pillow, he is required to let the “slave” have the bed and he must sleep elsewhere. To make the term “slave” clear, you can replace the word with “live-in coworker.” That individual has either wronged someone or is in debt to that person and this is how he works to reimburse the other person.
When we think about what the Sabbath is, essentially, we conclude that God created the world in seven days and told mankind, “I am making the entire universe. I could have infinite or finite space for you. I am choosing to take a chunk out of My property and give it to you so that you and I may connect.” Since we can’t possibly live up to the same extreme scenario, we built a tabernacle. That tabernacle was our attempt at a sincere and personal gesture to God with a similar message: We want to take a piece out of our seemingly infinite land and dedicate part of it (where we build the tabernacle) to serving Him. By keeping Sabbath and refraining from those types of work, we remind ourselves of that message.
Kosher-related restrictions take a lot of dedication and learning to properly commit to and understand. There are deeper aspects of it that tie back into “choosing life” (Deuteronomy 29:9 – 30:20), a reference that has so much depth and should be explored in its own article.
Mares Ayin seems unnecessarily extreme to most people when they first discover it. Quite simply, Jews are not allowed to celebrate Halloween or sit in a non-kosher restaurant because if another Jew were to walk by, he or she might think that holiday/restaurant is permitted. But when we begin to think of the Torah and its commandments as being our connection to God, then disregarding a law is a significantly larger deal. It is no longer simply ignoring a commandment for the sake of choosing another lifestyle; it’s rejecting our side of the sacred relationship between us as individuals and a nation and our own father and creator. We must ensure that we appear ideal as well, so as to not inadvertently be the cause of someone else not fulfilling the commandments to his or her best capacity.
Every commandment in the Torah, no matter how often the application is relevant, has wondrous implications and messages to teach. Smaller things, such as the rabbis telling us in which order to tie our shoes or saying a blessing after we use the restroom, remind us that God is in every aspect of our life, no matter how small or physical it may seem. The larger and more commonly known commandments such as Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) teach us about God’s love and forgiveness for his people, a trait we should mimic, as well as the significance of achieving forgiveness from God, others, and even ourselves.
The message behind the task may not always be as apparent as we may hope, but the inspiration is always there — it may just require a conversation or two before we see it.