Make a Fixed Time for Study

עשה תורתך קבע – אמור מעט ועשה הרבה

Studying Breshit – Why start with creation?

Posted by rabbiart on October 24, 2008

Rashi asks – Why does the Torah begin with the creation story?

Rashi opens his commentary by asking why the Torah does not begin with the first commandment given to the Israelite people as a people. This commandment is given in Shemot 12:2. The verses there describe the setting aside and later eating of the Pascal lamb.  He rules out other commandments found in Breshit that apply to the Jewish people by saying that they could have been included with laws in the Torah that come after Shemot 12.

Why does Rashi propose to rule out – so to speak – everything in the Torah before Shemot 12:2 and then include it back in?  The purpose of the creation story is to establish that the earth belongs to its Creator.  The Creator owns the earth and can assign portions of it as the Creator wishes. Specifically, the Creator at one point gave it to the seven nations who occupied it before the Israelites came back from Egypt.  The Creator can choose to take that land away from the seven nations and give it to Israel.  Therefore, in Rashi’s thinking, the Jewish people have a defence to any accusation that it is not entitled to the land of Israel.  Sovereign rights in any part of the earth belong to the Creator, and it is the Creator’s right to parcel it out as the Creator desires.

Rashi’s argument is compelling — to Rashi!  And to anyone who stands “inside the circle” with Rashi.  I suspect it wouldn’t work too well in the U.N. General Assembly, l’havdil.

Rashi’s argument suggests two points of departure, or orientations, for studying Torah; creation of the world, and creation of the Jewish people.  The Torah tells both a universal and a particular story.  But it is not as simple as reading Breshit as the universal story and the latter four books as only the story of the Jewish* people.  A good number of the mitzvot given in the latter four books serve to heighten Jewish sensibilities toward all people, not only Jews.  After all, we are constantly reminded to take care for the ger** – stranger among us. (Here’s an example)

As a Jew, I might say that I am twice-created; once as a physical entity (the creation story), and once as a sentient and spiritual being (a member of the community who escaped from Egypt and accepted the covenant).

*I’m using the term “Jew” even though that particular label does not come into the language until much later in the Biblical period.

**The term “ger” eventually came to mean a person who voluntarily becomes Jewish, or who is on the way to becoming jewish. IMHO, the original meaning is the stranger or non-Jew.  We are told to remember that we were gerim (strangers) in Egypt.  Certainly we were not voluntary Egyptians, or on the road to becoming Egyptians.

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