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04/06/2015 07:00:00 AM


Genesis 1:1 - 6:8
by Rabbi Edward Feinstein

The Torah has no title page. It has neither an author's introduction nor a preface -- nothing to tell us why the book was written or how it is to be read. Consider, for example, the very first line: "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." (Genesis 1:1)

We find on this line a remarkable comment, but the most famous of Jewish Bible commentators, Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac of eleventh century France, known by the acronym, Rashi: "Why does the Torah begin with Genesis? The Torah should have begun with the verse (Exodus 12:2): 'This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months' which is the first commandment given to Israel. For what reason does the Torah begin with Genesis?"

Rashi's commentary attempts to provide the Jew with a broad survey of law, theology, and wisdom -- a sort of basic curriculum of Jewish life. Rashi's genius is to state the most comprehensive of questions in the most remarkably concise form. And this one is a gem because within this innocuous question is a world of debate on the nature of Judaism and purpose of the Torah.

Follow Rashi's logic: If the Torah began at Exodus 12, what would we lose? We would Creation, the origins of humanity, the Flood, the Covenant, the lives of forefathers and mothers, the birth and call of Moses. Who would want to delete these stories? Who would expect the Torah to begin at Exodus 12? One who understood Judaism as a system of behavior, a set of religious actions. One who reads Torah solely as a book of law. For if Judaism is only about behavior and Torah entirely law, why waste parchment and ink on stories? Who needs Genesis?

Moreover, Exodus 12 is not the first commandment of the Torah. The Torah's first commandment is given to all humanity and occurs in the first chapter of Genesis: Be fruitful and multiply. Exodus 12 is only the first commandment given to the people Israel. And ironically, it is the beginning of "Jewish time," juxtaposed to the beginning of universal time at the creation. Who would expect Torah to begin with Exodus 12? One who believes that the Torah is only for Jews; that Torah speaks a private Jewish language, with nothing to say to humanity. One who hears the Torah addressing only the Jew in us, in our particularity, and not the human being in us. If Torah speaks only to Jews, and only to the Jew in us, who needs Genesis?

We need Genesis, Rashi argues, to refute the reduction of Judaism to obsessive behaviorism and narrow chauvinism. The Torah begins with Genesis because the behaviors that Judaism demands of us are rooted in a distinctly Jewish orientation toward the world -- a Jewish understanding of life, of what it means to be human, of God's Presence. The mitzvot have a purpose: To cultivate a certain spiritual character in us. To perform ritual acts without concern for their meaning and intent is as hollow as professing beliefs that have no impact on behavior.

Torah is the Jewish answer to human condition.

For this same reason, Maimonides begins his Mishna Torah, his code of Jewish law, with a section entitled, Yesoday Hatorah, the Foundations of Torah.


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Sat, August 15 2020 25 Av 5780