In the beginning: Why does Genesis start with the story of creation?

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Guest Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Bereshit (Genesis 1:1-6:8)                                             

In the beginning G-d created the heavens and the earth.” Genesis 1:1

Why does the Torah, the word of G-d given to Moses as His legacy to the Jewish people, begin with an account of creation, going off into gardens of Eden and towers of Babel? It could, and perhaps should, have begun with the first commandment given to Israel as a newly-born free nation after their departure from Egypt: “This month shall be unto you the beginning of months’ [Ex. 12:2]. After all, is not the Bible primarily a book of commandments? So asks Rashi at the beginning of his commentary on Bereshit.

I would like to suggest three classical responses to this question, each of which makes a stunning contribution to our opening query, What is Torah? Rashi’s answer to this question is the Zionist credo. We begin with an account of creation because, if the nations of the world point their fingers at us, claiming we are thieves who have stolen this land from the Canaanites and its other indigenous inhabitants, our answer is that the entire world belongs to G-d; since He created it, He can give it to whomever is worthy in His eyes. From this perspective, Rashi has masterfully taken a most universal verse and given it a nationalistic spin. He has placed our right to the land of Israel as an implication of the very first verse of the Torah!

It is also possible to give Rashi’s words an added dimension. He concludes this particular interpretation, ‘and He (G-d) can give (the land) to whomever is worthy in his eyes.’ These words can be taken to mean either to whomever He wishes, i.e., to Israel, because He so arbitrarily chooses, or rather as a moral directive, to whomever is morally worthy of the land, which implies that only if our actions deem us worthy, will we have the right to Israel. Jewish history bears out the second explanation, given the fact that we have suered two exiles – the second of which lasted close to two thousand years. If this is indeed the proper explanation, Rashi’s words provide a warning as well as a promise.

Nahmanides also grapples with this question. For him, it is clear that G-d’s creation of the world is at the center of our theology, and so it was crucial to begin with this opening verse.

After all, the Torah is not only a Book of Commandments but is rather a complete philosophy of life. Hence, the first seven words of the Bible most significantly tell us that there is a Creator of this universe, that our world is not an accident, ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,’ a haphazard convergence of chemicals and exploding gases. It is a world with a beginning, and a beginning implies an end, a purpose, a reason for being. Moreover, without the creation of heaven and earth, could we survive even for an instant? Our very existence depends on the Creator; and in return for creating us, He has the right to ask us to live in a certain way and follow His laws. The first verse in the Torah sets the foundation for all that follows, it is the verse upon which our entire metaphysical structure rests!

After all, the Creator has rights of ownership: He owns us, our very beings. He deserves to have us live our lives in accord with His will and not merely in accord with our own subjective, and even selfish desires. He deserves our blessings before we partake of any bounty of the universe and our commitment to the lifestyle He commands us to lead.

In addition, Nahmanides further suggests that the entire story of the Garden of Eden teaches us that the punishment for disobeying G-d’s laws will be alienation and exile, just as Adam and Eve were exiled from the garden of Eden after eating the forbidden fruit. This process will be experienced by Israel during our two dicult exiles. This too is a crucial element in Jewish theology.

The Midrash [Gen. Raba 12] oers yet a third explanation. Implied in our opening biblical verse is a principle as to how we ought to live our lives, the major purpose of our very being. ‘In the beginning G-d created heaven and earth.’ And since one of the guiding principles in the Torah is that we walk in His ways, our first meeting with G-d tells us that, just as He created, so must we create, just as He stood at the abyss of darkness and made light, so must we – created in His image – remove all pockets of darkness, chaos and void, bringing light, order and significance. In eect, the first verse of Genesis is also the first commandment, a command ordained by G-d to all human beings created in His image: the human task in this world is to create, or rather to re-create a world, to make it a more perfect world, by virtue of the ‘image of G-d’ within each of us.

The  Midrash sees the human being in general, and the Jew in particular, as a creative force. Our creative energies – religious, ethical, scientific and artistic – must work in harmony with the Almighty to perfect a not yet perfect world, to bring us back to the dream-harmony of Eden, to which primordial world G-d first brought His human partner to develop and for which G-d bid Adam to take responsibility (Gen 2:15). Our sacred Torah reveals not only what humanity is but rather what humanity must become: it teaches us that it is not merely sufficient for us to engage the world but we must attempt to perfect the world in the Kingship – and with the “fellowship” – of our Partner, the Divine and Majestic Creator. 

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin (Orthodox) is the Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Israel.

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