“Starting All Over–Again!”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

The holidays are over. In ancient times, the farmers would by now have returned to their fields. Contemporary business people have also returned to their work. Those who reside in the northern hemisphere await the conclusion of fall and anticipate the arrival of winter. For much of the world, it is a natural period for beginning. For the Jewish people however it is a natural time to begin–again.

And so, with the book of Genesis, Jews all over the world begin to read the Torah again–from the very beginning, from Bereishith.

Bereishith starts logically with the creation of the world and the fashioning of humankind. The Al-mighty places the human beings in a wondrous garden known as Eden, and gives its inhabitants but a single commandment–not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. They fail, and are punished. Expelled from the garden, their actions bring much pain upon all future generations with the introduction of suffering, backbreaking labor and death.

Adam and Eve’s progeny do not fare much better. Cain rises up and murders his brother, Abel. Cain’s great-grandson, Lemech, also takes two lives, the life of his great-grandfather, Cain, and the life of his son, Tuval-Cain. Ten generations are recorded in the parasha of Bereishith, just enough for the Al-mighty to decide that the rampaging evil that has infected the world must stop–-even if it means inundating the earth. Hardly a promising start for humankind or for the world.

Ironically, parashat Bereishith and the remaining chapters of the book of Genesis are intended to set the tone for the entire Torah. The Torah is not meant to serve as a book of history, although it is an accurate recorder of human events. Nor is it intended to be a book of theology, although it fulfills that function as well. It is surely not to be viewed as an entertaining storybook, although some of the greatest stories of humankind are contained therein. It is primarily a book of morality and ethics for humankind, one that establishes a framework to proclaim to all the necessity of living a meaningful and upright life.

The very essence of the Torah is the “covenant” that was concluded between G-d and His people, Israel. Although the covenant was concluded at Mount Sinai and is recounted in the book of Shemot, Exodus, it is the book of Genesis that serves as the introduction to the covenant and provides the basic understanding of the covenental relationship that G-d established with His people.

It is Genesis that sets the pattern that marks our peoples’ early years. By relating the history of the matriarchs and patriarchs, the book of Genesis essentially explains why the covenant was concluded specifically between G-d and their descendants. The story of creation is not really intended to inform us how the world started, but rather to explain the evolution of the Israelite people, and why they, of all people, were chosen for the special partnership with the Al-mighty. This is underscored by the fact that the entire creation of the world and all of human development consisting of 19 generations of families, is subsumed in the first 11 chapters of the book of Genesis. The remainder of Genesis, fully 39 chapters, are then devoted to the lives of the patriarchs and matriarchs and Jacob’s children, consisting of only 4 generations. The first 19 generations are intended to serve merely as a general introduction. On the other hand, the lives of the patriarchs are the essential ingredient to understanding the covenental relationship.

The four other books of the Torah also come to affirm the special relationship between G-d and His people. The second book, known as Shemot, Exodus, tells of the shaping of the nation in the cauldron of Egypt. After the slavery and the redemption from Egypt, G-d concludes the covenant with His People.

The book of Exodus also introduces the mitzvot, the vital commandments that bind the Jewish people in their covenental partnership with G-d. The book of Leviticus features the laws and statutes that affirm the covenant. The book of B’midbar, Numbers, speaks of the journey of the Israelites through the wilderness to reach the Promised Land where the covenant will become reality. And finally the book of Devarim, Deuteronomy, summarizes and completes the Torah. Deuteronomy reiterates the principles of the covenant, reinforcing important precepts and laws, and bids farewell to the great leader Moses, who actuated the covenant between G-d and His people.

The Torah is therefore essentially about G-d, His people Israel, the land upon which the covenant will be fulfilled and the precepts that bind the people to its covenental Partner. Anything else contained in the Torah is merely a means of affirming the G-d’s covenant G-d with His people.

If we understand the role that Bereishith is meant to play, to serve as a prelude to the essential covenant, then the most famous comment of the most famous biblical commentator, begins to make sense. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) cites Rabbi Yitzchak who states that G-d should not have begun the Torah with Bereishith, but rather with the first commandment that the People of Israel were commanded, as recorded in Exodus 12:2: “This month shall be for you the beginning of the months.” What is the reason that G-d opened the Torah with the book of Genesis? Because He wished to convey a message that is expressed in the verse in Psalms, 111-6: “Koach ma’asav hee’gid l’amo,”–-the power of His acts He told to His people in order to give them the heritage of the nations. So that if the nations of the world would say to Israel: “You are bandits, for you have conquered the land [Canaan] of the seven nations!” Israel will be able to respond to them: “The entire Earth belongs to G-d, He created it and gave it to the one who is proper in His eyes. By His wish He [initially] gave it to them [the Canaanites], and by His wish He [now] took it from them and gave it to us.”

We see that the opening comment of Rashi brings us right back to the primary theme of the Torah. The Torah begins with Bereishith in order to illustrate how the special connection between G-d, His people and the land of Israel was established. That is the essence. Everything else is secondary.

May you be blessed.