“Beginning at the Beginning–-Again”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

As we begin the study of the Torah once again, it seems appropriate to attempt to clarify the purpose of Torah study.

The Torah was not written to provide a scientific perspective on life. Nor was it intended to serve as a cosmological or historical document, or to entertain Bible students with intriguing and wondrous stories and tales.

The Torah’s not-so-simple purpose is to serve as an educational, religious, ethical and national source of inspiration for the Jewish people specifically, and for greater humanity in general.

The Torah’s primary function is to record and confirm the establishment of the covenant between G-d, the Jewish people and the land of Israel. This covenant, which was concluded between the Al-mighty and the Children of Israel at the Revelation at Sinai, is recorded in the book of Exodus. Everything that precedes the Revelation is intended to serve as an introduction to understanding how the covenant came to be. Therefore, the book of Genesis relates, in profuse detail, the story of the patriarchs and matriarchs, in order to explain the origins of our people, as well as how the foundations of the covenant between G-d and the children of Abraham were established.

The story of creation itself is intended to teach both the background of the Jewish people, and their early interface with the rest of humankind.

The book of Genesis is thus divided into two parts. The first part, from Genesis 1 through 11, speaks of the creation of the world, the creation of human beings and the history of early civilization from the time of Adam until Abraham. This serves as a prologue to the great story of the covenant that G-d first made with Abraham.

The second part of the book of Genesis, from Genesis 12 through the end of Genesis, is a record of the history of the patriarchs and matriarchs from whom the nation of Israel eventually emerged. At first, it seems unclear why the Torah would devote fully 39 chapters to the history of the forefathers, a period of only 3 generations, while the history of humankind, from Adam to Abraham, a period of 20 generations, is covered in only 11 chapters. We soon realize that the history of the patriarchs is far more important to understanding the overall purpose of the Torah, whereas the history of humankind provides a general historical overview, with few theological implications.

The well-known question cited by Rashi confirms the centrality of the relationship between G-d and the Jewish people as the major theme and purpose of the Torah.

The very first verse of Genesis underscores this special relationship.

Genesis 1:1 states, “Bereshit barah Eh’lo-kim ayt ha’sha’mayim, v’ayt ha’ah’retz,” In the beginning G-d created the heavens and the earth. Rashi immediately cites the question of Rabbi Yitzchak in the Midrash. The Torah, says Rabbi Yitzchak, should not have begun with the story of creation, but rather with the verse (Exodus 12:1), “Ha’chodesh ha’zeh la’chem,” This month shall be for you the beginning of the month. This verse, after all, introduces the first commandment which the Jewish people were commanded as a nation–to keep the month of Nisan.

Rashi responds that the reason the Torah opens with Bereshith is because the Al-mighty wished to convey the message of the power of His godly acts to His people, lest the nations of the world come to Israel and say, “You are bandits for conquering the land of the seven nations that belongs to us!” Because the Bible opens with the story of creation, the people of Israel can now respond to the nations’ claims by declaring that the whole earth belongs to G-d. He created it and he gave it to whomever He found proper. Obviously, it was G-d’s desire to give the land first to the nations, and then to take it from them and give it to the Jewish people.

Rashi’s response returns us to the major theme of the Torah. The Torah began with the word “Bereshit” in order to underscore the special bond between G-d, the people of Israel and the land of Israel. It is a bond that we must treasure and protect.

There is no greater way for Israel to treasure and protect the bond between the Al-mighty and His people than for Jews to study Torah.

May you be blessed.

The intermediary days of Sukkot (Chol HaMoed) are observed through Wednesday, September 25th. On Wednesday evening, the festival of Shemini Atzeret commences and is celebrated on Thursday, September 26th. The final day of the festival, Simchat Torah, begins on Thursday evening, September 26th and continues through Friday, September 27th.