“A person should always endeavor to grasp general principles. Each general principle includes numerous individual details. When a person understands one principle he automatically understands a great number of details.” –The Ramchal
This is a basic principle for learning the Bible. It works equally well in all other aspects of our lives too. There is no coincidence in this idea. As we learn the general principles of the Bible, we are also learning the general principles of our lives. The idea that the average person could never really understand the Bible was first put forth by the Catholic Church. In the early years of the church, the general public was forbidden to own or even read the Bible for themselves. This worked well for the church. All they had to do was tell people what it said, according to them, then force everyone to believe it, then collect huge amounts of money for doing so. Those who didn’t believe what they were told were labeled heretics and found themselves in a precarious position. Many were killed. Others were fortunate enough to only suffer having their property seized.
Fast forward to today. We are free to read the Bible whenever we want. regrettably, many people are still stuck in the past. They are afraid to read the Bible for themselves. They are afraid they won’t understand it in the way their priests and pastors have explained it to them. It’s not surprising. For centuries we were told we were either too stupid to understand it, or that G-d only reveals the true meanings to the clergy. We have no business trying to understand such things. It is foolish to think that a loving G-d, who wishes to connect with us, would give us a text we are unable to understand. Moses said, “teach me your ways so that I may know you.”
So, to know G-d, we must learn His ways. His ways are outlined in the Torah. We have to read it in order to understand it. It is not good enough to listen to others once or twice a week. You will never learn it that way. You will only learn what that other person wants you to learn. This gives way to corruption, either intentional or unintentional. That lack of personal understanding forces you to go back week after week in hopes that you will finally understand. It never happens. I know people who have been in church for years and understand very little about the Bible. The realist in me needs to interject here that the church expects you to pay week after week for them to teach you. Therein lies the corruption. It is estimated that, in the US, if churches were to lose their tax-exempt status, it would generate $71 billion in tax revenue per year.* That is only the taxed portion. In Judaism, it is forbidden to charge to teach Torah.
So, how do you know if what you think is the true meaning of the scripture? Go back to the idea of general principles. Learn the simple things first. Much of the Bible contains simple meanings. By learning the simple meanings of several things, you will begin to see for yourself that you already understand the deeper meanings. The simple principles are the foundation. When you look at the foundation of a building, at first it doesn’t look like much. One thing you can see is where the exterior walls will be. Now you have two parts, the foundation, and the walls. You can apply the same principle as when you just had the foundation. Looking at a building with just walls, it becomes easy to see where the door should be. This process can be continued until the full building is complete. So long as you don’t forget the foundation. The simple meanings don’t change and the deeper meanings will never contradict the simple meanings. This is a safeguard built into the Torah. If you start getting into something and you think you understand it, but you aren’t sure, go back to the foundation and see if it will still stand with what you are learning. If you arrive at a conclusion that is contradictory to the simple meanings, you’ve got something wrong somewhere in your thought process. Always go back to the simple meanings. If you are the type of person who can only understand the simple meanings, you still have the complete guide for how to live your life according to G-d’s plan. If you apply His plan to your life you can still connect to Him.
G-d gave us the Torah at Sinai. In Deuteronomy 5:1 we are commanded thus, “And Moses called all Israel and said to them, “Hear, O Israel, the statutes and ordinances which I speak in your ears this day, and learn them, and observe [them] to do them.” Here we are commanded to do three things, to hear, to learn, to observe to do. All three of these are part of studying. G-d did not command us to study Torah and not give us the ability to understand it. Some Torah scholars merit to see the most secret of the secret meanings hidden within the scriptures. Do not be dissuaded because you have not been given this level of understanding. Each one of us is given the level of understanding we need to live our lives. Those with greater understanding are the ones to whom the rest of us should listen. There will always be someone who knows more than you. Learn from them. However, there will also be those who know less than you. Teach them. You must not begrudge the more learned, nor look down on the less learned. We all have our place in this world. This is part of the divine order of things. To begrudge someone of their greater knowledge is to say that G-d made a mistake. The same goes for those with less knowledge. The Torah was not given to angels in heaven. It was given to humans. We make mistakes. We get things completely wrong sometimes. Keep this in mind when dealing with others.
G-d has given us three tools with which to study Torah; wisdom, understanding, and knowledge. Blessed is He who bestows knowledge.
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