By Shlomo Riskin
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 with the first commandment given to Israel as a newly-born free nation after their departure from Egypt: “This month shall be unto you the beginning of months” [Ex. 12:2]. After all, is not the Bible primarily a book of commandments? So asks Rashi at the beginning of his commentary on Bereshit.
I suggest three classical responses to this question. Each makes a stunning contribution to our opening query, What is Torah? Rashi’s answer 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 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 either to whomever He wishes, i.e., to Israel, or rather as a moral directive, 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 lasting close to 2,000 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 not only a Book of Commandments but is rather a complete philosophy of life. Hence, 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 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. In return for creating us, He has the right to ask us to follow His laws. The first verse in the Torah sets the foundation for all that follows, it is the verse upon which our entire metaphysical structure rests!
After all, the Creator owns our very beings. He deserves to have us live our lives in accord with His will and He deserves our blessings before we partake of any bounty of the universe and our commitment to the lifestyle He commands us to lead.
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 will be experienced by Israel during our two difficult exiles. 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 the major purpose of our very being. “In the beginning God created heaven and earth.” 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 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, 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 the 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 an imperfect world, to bring us back to the dream-harmony of Eden. Our Torah reveals not only what humanity is but rather what humanity must become: it teaches us that it is not merely sufficient for us to engage the world but we must attempt to perfect the world in the Kingship – and with the “fellowship” – of our Partner, the Divine and Majestic Creator.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.