May 24, 2019

A Good Place to Start

The Torah has no title page. It has neither an author’s introduction nor a preface — nothing to tell us why the book was written or how it is to be read. The very first line begins with a complete lack of self-consciousness: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1).

On this line we find a remarkable comment by the most famous of Jewish Bible commentators, Rashi, Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac of 11th century France. Rashi cites a classical midrash: “Rabbi Isaac asked: Why does the Torah begin with Genesis? The Torah should have begun with the verse (Exodus 12:2): ‘This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months,’ which is the first commandment given to Israel. For what reason does the Torah begin with Genesis?”

Rashi’s commentary on the Torah provides the Jew with a broad survey of law, theology and wisdom — a basic curriculum of Jewish learning. Rashi’s genius is to state the most penetrating questions in the most concise idiom. This one is a gem. Within this innocuous question is a world of debate on the nature of Judaism and purpose of the Torah.

Follow the logic of the question: If the Torah began at Exodus 12, what would we lose? We would lose the accounts of Creation, the origins of humanity, the Flood, the Covenant with Abraham, the lives of forefathers and mothers, the birth and call of Moses. Who would want to delete these stories? Who would expect the Torah to begin at Exodus 12? Only one who understands Judaism as preeminently a system of behavior, a set of religious actions — one who reads Torah solely as a book of law. If Judaism is only about behavior and Torah entirely law, why waste parchment and ink on stories? Who needs Genesis? Start with Exodus 12!

Exodus 12 is not the first commandment of the Torah. The Torah’s first commandment is given to all humanity and occurs in the first chapter of Genesis: “Be fruitful and multiply.” Exodus 12 is the first commandment given to the people of Israel. It is the beginning of “Jewish time,” juxtaposed to the beginning of universal time at the Creation. Who would expect Torah to begin with Exodus 12? One who believes that the Torah is only for Jews; that Torah speaks in a private Jewish language, with nothing to say to humanity. One who hears the Torah addressing only the Jew in us, only our particularity, and not the human being in us. If Torah speaks only to Jews, and only to the Jew in us, who needs Genesis? Start with Exodus 12!

The Torah begins with Genesis and its narratives to refute the reduction of Judaism to obsessive behaviorism and narrow chauvinism. The Torah begins with Genesis because the behaviors that Judaism demands of us are rooted in the biblical narrative. There we find a distinctly Jewish orientation toward the world — a Jewish understanding of life, of what it means to be human, of good and evil, of God’s presence and involvement in our world. The mitzvot have a vital purpose — to cultivate our spiritual character, to grow our souls and connect our lives with God. Performing ritual acts without concern for their meaning and intent is as hollow as professing beliefs that have no impact on behavior. Meaningful imperative requires compelling narrative.

Even Exodus 12 validates this conviction. Commanded to instruct the people Israel on the detailed observance of the Passover — the sacrifice, the sacred meal, the unleavened bread and the prohibition against leaven — Moses adds one element not explicit in God’s command: “When your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this rite?’ you shall say: ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord because He passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt….” (Exodus 12:26-27). Rite must be embedded in story. For shared story is critical to the life of a community and to the practice of faith. To truly liberate the enslaved and broken people, Moses gave them back their story.

Those who worry over the future of Jewry cite grim statistics of assimilation, alienation and disaffection of contemporary Jews. But our real problem is deeper than statistics can show – it is the loss of our shared story, the lack of a compelling narrative of Jewish life. Go back to your beginnings, Rashi bids us, and recollect your story. For the source of your collective life and faith is in your shared story.

Ed Feinstein is senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. He serves on the faculty of the Ziegler Rabbinical School of the University of Judaism, the Wexner Heritage Foundation, the Whizen Center for the Jewish Family and the Synagogue 3000 initiative.