Parshat Bereishit (Genesis 1:1 – 6:8)
(Translated from the Hebrew original)
The first parsha of the Torah, along with the eponymous first book of the Chumash, are aptly named “Breishit”. The name inspires a sense of renewal and rejuvenation. Though the parsha begins with the story of the creation of the world, we who study it also merit to participate in a wonderful and exciting experience: we all start studying “from breishit”, from the beginning. We can reread the story in a new and refreshing way. A new group of learners and thinkers can join in. In a nutshell, we all start at the beginning, at breishit.
One of the important issues that anyone wishing to travel down the paths of the Torah must grapple with is understanding what the Torah essentially is. Everyone knows that the Torah is a book that Moshe Rabbeinu transcribed “מפי הגבורה”, “from the mouth of God”, as it were – over three thousand years ago. However, we wish to transcend the chronological details and understand the Torah’s goals, its characteristics, and its nature. Is it a book of laws and commandments, or a history book packed with exciting stories about the history of the world, with an emphasis on that of the Jewish People?
Rashi, the greatest of the Torah commentators, begins his commentary with that very question:
The Torah should have begun with “החודש הזה לכם”, ”the month is to you”, which is the first commandment that the Children of Israel were instructed to perform. Why, then, did the Torah begin with Breishit?
The basic and underlying assumption in this question is that the Torah is a book of commandments and laws, and if so, it should have begun with the first commandments that the Jewish People were instructed to perform upon leaving Egypt. Why did the Torah consider it appropriate to begin with the story of Creation and the other historical events that transpired as the Jewish People were being established?
Rashi provides an answer that we need to understand in depth. Citing Tehillim / Psalms 111:6, he notes: “‘The power of His acts He told to His people in order to give them the estate of nations’. So that when the nations of the world will say to Israel, ‘You are bandits, for you conquered the land of seven nations’, Israel will say to them, ‘The whole earth belongs to the Holy One, Blessed is He’.”
The answer seems to be detached from the question. The question carried the assumption that the Torah is a book of laws, and the answer says that we need to respond to the nations of the world and explain what we are doing here, in the Land of Israel. It seems like a good idea, but how is this connected to the Torah, which is essentially a book of laws? If we really need a statement of defense to refute the claims of the nations of the world, such a statement will inevitably be written, but what does this have to do with the Torah?
We could say that the Torah is indeed a book of laws, but for certain reasons, the text begins with a few stories. It follows that in order to prevent the nations of the world from claiming that we had stolen the Land of Israel from the Canaanites, the Torah needs to digress from its primary character and state that the land is indeed ours, and that we are not foreign occupiers.
However, another radically approach can be taken as well. The Torah isn’t just a book of commandments – and we don’t accept “the conventional view”. The name “Torah” is indeed derived from the Hebrew word that means teaching, הוראה. But commandments are just part of the teaching it wishes to achieve. Another component, no less important than the first, is to teach us God’s deeds in Creation. The truth is that if we take a good look at the Five Books of Moses, we will understand that they don’t deal with commandments, but rather with how God leads the world.
This observation should lead us humans to the realization that even if we may feel as though we are in control of the world, there is a Master of the universe. By reading the first stories of Breishit and the stories that ensue, we can come the realization that the world has a purpose and substance. It has a ruler, a goal, a direction and a path.
Commandments are one aspect of this, but they aren’t the sole aspect. We must also study the world of ethics and good values, the concept of reward for good deeds and punishment for bad ones, sensitivity to those who are different, and deference to both individuals and society as a whole, and this goes beyond keeping the letter of the law. An entire world of divine values will be formed from the study of God’s path and how He chooses to guide this world.
The Book of Breishit – Genesis – is therefore the first book that tries to recount a tiny part of the history of the universe, and in so doing, attach meaning to our existence, and help us understand our role in this world.