The Truth About the Torah? It’s Complicated

Laws, laws, laws. The Torah is stuffed with them. Some make perfect sense and help us to be better people, and some simply don’t apply – we don’t need to know how to perform the sacrifices of the Tabernacle, for example.

And the thing at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion about taking a beautiful woman captive (Deut. 21:10-14)? Not likely to come up in the life of an average American.

But the underlying message is very much one that applies. It teaches us to resist acting on impulse, and to understand everyone’s basic need for human dignity. The captor is told that even if he wants to sleep with the beautiful woman, he must first allow her to make herself less beautiful. She is to cut her nails and hair, and spend a month mourning for her parents. Only then can he marry her.

Don’t get me wrong. There are lots of things in the Torah that we don’t like. And this week’s Torah portion, which has a whopping 72 commandments, offers commandments that promote kindness right along with ones that seem unfeeling. I could cherry pick and tell you about the ones I like, but that wouldn’t be honest.

The truth about the Torah is that it is complicated. Just like us. It offers an intricate set of rules for living, and detailed stories about men and women whose lives were far from perfect. Even the two people who lived in a supposedly perfect realm, the Garden of Eden, were thrust out when they proved that humans are anything but perfect, even in the best of circumstances.

We’re two weeks away from the High Holidays, when we stand together and admit our sins, and symbolically cast them into the water. If we pay attention to the process that our rituals provide, we can hope to achieve a degree of self-improvement. And even then, we will not achieve perfection.

Not being perfect is one of the things I like about being human. I used to joke that I didn’t want to be perfect; perfection is boring. Imperfection is so much more interesting.

The Torah, on the other hand, is perfect exactly because it is not.

What do I mean by that? It is not easy to absorb, and it is not meant to be. It forces us to think, to study and discuss, to try to find meaning in its complexities and seeming contradictions. Both individually and communally, we can use this incredible tool to forge an understanding of the world that transcends simple yes and no answers, and we can take that knowledge and make our homes, our personal lives, and our communities, better.