The article below is from Rabbi Riskin’s book Bereishit: Confronting Life, Love and Family, part of his Torah Lights series of commentaries on the weekly parsha, published by Maggid and available for purchase here.
Parshat Bereishit: What is Torah?
Rabbi Dr. Shomo Riskin is the Founder and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1)
Why does the Torah, the word of God given to Moses as His legacy to the Jewish people, begin with an account of creation, going off into gardens of Eden and towers of Babel? It could, and perhaps should, have begun at the point when the Jews are given their first commandment as a nation after departing from Egypt: ‘This month shall be unto you the beginning of months’ [Ex. 12:2], referring to the month of Nissan, when Pesach, the uniquely Jewish festival commemorating our emergence as a nation, is celebrated. After all, is not the Bible primarily a book of commandments? So asks Rashi at the beginning of his commentary on Bereishit.
I would like to suggest three classical responses to this question, each of which makes a stunning contribution to our opening query, What is Torah?
Rashi’s answer to this question is the Zionist credo. We begin with an account of creation because, if the nations of the world point their fingers at us, claiming we are thieves who have stolen this land from the Canaanites and its other indigenous inhabitants, our answer is that the entire world belongs to God; since He created it, He can give it to whomever is worthy in His eyes. From this perspective, Rashi has masterfully taken a most universal verse and given it a nationalistic spin. He has placed our right to the land of Israel as an implication of the very first verse of the Torah!
It is also possible to give Rashi’s words an added dimension. He concludes this particular interpretation, ‘and He (God) can give (the land) to whomever is worthy in his eyes.’ These words can be taken to mean to whomever He wishes, i.e., to Israel, because he so arbitrarily chooses, or they can mean to whomever is morally worthy of the land, which implies that only if our actions deem us worthy, will we have the right to Israel. Jewish history bears out the second explanation, given the fact that we have suffered two exiles – the second of which lasting close to two thousand years. If this is indeed the proper explanation, Rashi’s words provide a warning as well as a promise.
Nahmanides also grapples with this question. For him, it is clear that God’s creation of the world is at the center of our theology, and so it was crucial to begin with this opening verse.
After all, the Torah is a complete philosophy of life. The first seven words of the Bible most significantly tell us that there is a Creator of this universe, that our world is not an accident, ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,’ a haphazard convergence of chemicals and exploding gases. It is a world with a beginning, and a beginning implies an end, a purpose, a reason for being. Moreover, without the creation of heaven and earth, could we survive even for an instant? Our very existence depends on the Creator; and in return for creating us, He has the right to ask us to live in a certain way and follow His laws. The first verse in the Torah sets the foundation for all that follows.
First of all, there is a beginning. Second, there is a Creator who created heaven and earth. Third, everything in heaven and on earth owes its existence to the Creator; and fourth, in owing one’s existence to the Creator, there could very well be deeds the Creator wants and expects from His creation. According to Nahmanides, the opening verse of the Torah is the one upon which our entire metaphysical structure rests!
After all, the Creator has rights of ownership: He owns us, our very beings. He deserves to have us live our lives in accord with His will and not merely in accord with our own subjective, and even selfish desires. He deserves our blessings before we partake of any bounty of the universe and our commitment to the lifestyle He commands us to lead.
In addition, Nahmanides further suggests that the entire story of the Garden of Eden teaches us that the punishment for disobeying God’s laws will be alienation and exile, just as Adam and Eve were exiled from the garden of Eden after eating the forbidden fruit. This process is experienced by Israel during our difficult exile. This too is a crucial element in Jewish theology.
The Midrash [Gen. Raba 12] offers yet a third explanation. Implied in our opening biblical verse is a principle as to how we ought to live our lives. ‘In the beginning God created heaven and earth.’ In this sentence, ‘created’ is the verb; the world reveals to us the creative function of the divine. And since one of the guiding principles in the Torah is that we walk in His ways, our first meeting with God tells us that, just as He created, so must we create, just as He stood at the abyss of darkness and made light, so must we – created in His image – remove all pockets of darkness, chaos and void, bringing light, order and significance. In effect, the first verse of Genesis is also the first commandment, a command ordained by God to all human beings created in His image: the human task in this world is to create, or rather to re-create a world, to make it a more perfect world, by virtue of the ‘image of God’ within each of us. The Midrash sees the human being in general, and the Jew in particular, as a creative force. Our creative energies – religious, ethical, scientific and artistic – must work in harmony with the Almighty to perfect a not yet perfect world, to bring us back to the peace and harmony of Eden.
All too often, Bible critics make two fatal errors. They divest the Torah of context and subtext, losing sight of what the Torah really wants to say. They take apart the grammatical mechanics of the words, disregarding the majesty and the fire, the vision and the message.
What we must remember is that essentially the Bible is not merely a book of laws, no matter how important they may be, and is certainly not written by man in his feeble attempt to understand creation and God; it is rather the Book of Books emanating from God, which gives instruction and life direction. It reveals not only what humanity is, but what we must strive to become; it teaches us that we must not merely engage the world, but attempt to perfect it in the majesty of the divine.