Friday, October 9, 2015

Why does the Torah Begin with Sefer Breishit? Three Classic Approaches

Rav Yehuda Turetsky

The Torah (Breishit 1:1) opens with a discussion of the world’s creation, and much of Sefer Breishit explores the history of mankind from Adam through Yaakov’s children. We are taught much about the lives of the Avot and their unique contributions, with a particular focus on the general development of the group that would eventually become the Jewish people.

For many, Sefer Breishit is a logical way to begin the Torah. Chronologically, creation is certainly an appropriate place to start. The Sefer as a whole also provides necessary information about the formation of our people. Yet, many Mefarshim are bothered by the choice.

What follows are three approaches towards the Torah’s opening.

1. Rashi (Breishit 1:1) cites Rav Yitzchak’s well-known interpretation. He assumes that the most appropriate starting point of Chumash would have been the first Mitzvah, the command to establish a Jewish calendar (Kiddush HaChodesh). He explains that Sefer Breishit was written to clearly establish our claim to Eretz Yisrael. The same God who created the world gave us Israel, and there should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that it is rightfully ours.

Rashi’s explanation is fascinating on many levels. First, he appears to assume (at least initially) that the Torah is primarily a book of laws, leading him to question the role and function  of all of Sefer Breishit. [There is some debate amongst Mefarshim regarding this assumption]. Additionally, his suggestion underscores for us the uniqueness of Eretz Yisrael. This book of laws does not begin with its natural starting point, in order to establish our claim to this special land. This certainly fits with the Sifri’s statement (Parshat Devarim) that dwelling in Israel is “shakul”, or considered equal, to all the other Mitzvot.

[The precise meaning of “Shakul” is beyond the scope of this brief post. For a discussion about this, see Rav Shlomo Wolbe’s important work, “Mitzvot Shekulot”.]

2. Ramban (Breishit 1:1) discusses Rashi’s view and approaches Sefer Breishit in an alternate way. For him, it makes sense to begin with creation since creation is the source of our faith in God. A critical component of the faith of any believing Jew is the tenet that God created the world. For him, Chumash is a work that offers us theology and not just law, an understanding of creation and not just Mitzvot.  He does note the challenge in understanding creation and therefore suggests an alternate understanding of Rashi’s Medrash. Still, his general orientation is clear. Creation is a most appropriate place to begin the Torah in order to establish one of the essential underpinnings of the Jewish belief.

3. Netziv (Introduction to Sefer Breishit) offers a well-known and critically important idea. Sefer Breishit is referred to by Chazal as Sefer haYashar, the book of the right or straight. Though this is a somewhat ambiguous title, Netziv understands it to mean that Breishit comes to teach us how to act and develop appropriate character traits. We are to learn from the Avot how to behave and cultivate sensitivity and care towards others. While the study of Torah is obviously important, that is not enough, and one must learn from the actions of the Avot how to behave towards others, including those with whom we disagree.

Each approach offers an idea about important pillars of our Avodat Hashem. Rashi highlights the primacy of Eretz Yisrael as well as of our Mitzvot. We are supposed to be Jews, perhaps first and foremost, that value Mitzvah observance and appreciate the unique role of Eretz Yisrael in our lives. Ramban reminds us of another core element of Torah, that of theology and belief. We are not just commanded to act, but to believe. [See Ramban to Shemot 20 and Hasagot to Sefer HaMitzvot mitzvah 1]. Netziv highlights a third and most fundamental idea. Mitzvot are important, as is theology, but interpersonal conduct remains most essential. Torah study, belief, and observance are incredibly significant, but the Torah begins with a book about Middot and sensitivity. We are commanded to behave as a unique people, sensitive to the needs of others.

May we be Zocheh to excel in all these areas!

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