Rabbi’s Essays – B’reisheet

In The Beginning, The Very Beginning 


Rashi, the great interpreter of Bible and Talmud, began his commentary on the Torah with a question: “Why does the Torah begin with creation?” Indeed, why does the Torah include any of the stories of Genesis? Rashi’s question has turned out to be more significant than he could have ever guessed.

For centuries now, the Torah has been the object of both devotion and controversy. Jews (and Christians, but in a very different way) are devoted to it as a sacred text: the word of God, transmitted to Moses and passed on to the People Israel. The controversy arises precisely from its reputed sacredness; if it is indeed the word of God, then it must be true! Most of the Torah is made up of commandments. (This was the point of Rashi’s initial comment.) Commandments are essentially value judgments: the keeping of the Sabbath, returning a fledgling to its mother’s nest, or even abjuring homosexual behavior are less subjected to a test of truth, in the sense of whether they are facts, but rather to a disposition of their trueness—their being right, in accord with the way of the cosmos, etc.

Jews were historically willing to accept the ‘truth’ of God’s commandments in the Torah, because they were willing to accept the ‘truth’ of the entire Torah. This is why Rashi’s apparent suggestion to do away with the entire book of Genesis, and start Torah with God’s first commandment to Israel in Exodus 12, looks good. The big problem with Genesis is, of course, that modern scholarship (that is, since the seventeenth century!) has made it difficult to accept as factually true. And nothing is harder to accept than the very beginning: the story of Creation, the primeval couple in the Garden, the talking snake, the world-engulfing flood.

I do not want to get into a defense of the first chapters of Genesis, whether as literary history (reflecting the limited worldview of an ancient people) or as moral metaphor (that the point to the Creation story is not what it says, but what it teaches us). Rather, I want to note an observation regarding almost all Reform Jews: that is, an unwillingness to reject Genesis out of hand. In the last analysis, we tend to defend the Creation tale, finding some way of rationalizing its clearly flawed science. And why? Clearly, because we want to accept the Torah in general as being true! The words we hear in the synagogue on Shabbat and the Festivals, is indeed “our life and the length of our days.” Thus, we engage in the dance of mind and spirit, searching for an intellectual way of preserving the fundamental truth of the sacred text that we somehow “know” in the core of our being must be true. This is the excitement and challenge of the first verses of Genesis.

By the way, what was Rashi’s answer to his own question regarding why the Torah begins with creation? Rashi argued in so doing there would be no mistake that God, as builder and superintendent of the universe, intended the strip of land along the eastern edge of the Mediterranean for the people Israel. The narrative therefore moves from a material discussion of physical creation, to a lesson regarding divine intent. Thus, we begin the beginning of the reading of the Torah. 

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