January 21, 2019

Torah Portion

Did the first people to read the Bible know theywere reading “The Bible”? And if not, what was it they thought theywere reading?

The Bible has no title page. It has neither anauthor’s introduction nor a preface — nothing to tell us why it waswritten or how it is to be read. We call the book “The Bible” andeven before we open the book, we know what “The Bible” is, and how itis to be treated. Would it be possible to forget all that — to openthe book afresh and be surprised by what we find?

Consider the very first comment by the most famousof Jewish Bible commentators, Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac of 11th centuryFrance, known by the acronym, Rashi: “Who needs Genesis? The Torahshould have begun with the verse (Exodus 12:2): ‘This month shallmark for you the beginning of the months’ which is the firstcommandment given to Israel. For what reason does the Torah beginwith Genesis?”

Rashi’s genius is his ability to state the mostcomprehensive of questions in the most remarkably concise form. Andthis one is a gem because within this innocuous question is a worldof debate on the nature of Judaism and the purpose of theTorah.

Follow Rashi’s logic: Who would want the Torah tobegin at Exodus 12? One who reads Torah solely as a book of law andunderstands Judaism exclusively as a system of behavior, a set ofreligious actions. For if Judaism is only about behavior and Torahentirely law, why waste parchment and ink on stories? Who needsstories about Creation, the origins of humanity, the Flood, theCovenant, the lives of forefathers and mothers? Who needsGenesis?

But Exodus 12 is not the first commandment of theTorah. The Torah’s first commandment is given to all humanity andoccurs in the first chapter of Genesis: “Be fruitful and multiply.”Exodus 12 is only the first commandment given to the people Israel.And ironically, it is the beginning of “Jewish time,” as opposed tothe beginning of universal time at the creation. Who would expectTorah to begin with Exodus 12? One who believes that the Torah isonly for Jews; that Torah speaks a private Jewish language, withnothing to say to humanity. Or perhaps, one who hears the Torahaddressing only the Jew in us, in our particularity, and not thehuman being in us. If Torah speaks only to Jews, and only to the Jewin us, who needs Genesis?

We need Genesis. The Torah begins with Genesisprecisely to refute the reduction of Judaism to obsessive behaviorismand narrow tribalism. The Torah begins with Genesis because thebehaviors that Judaism demands of us are rooted in a distinctlyJewish orientation toward the world — a Jewish understanding oflife, of what it means to be human, of God’s Presence in the world.The most radical concept in all world religion is the statement thathuman beings are created b’tzelemelohim, in the image of God. The purposeof all the mitzvot is to locate and cultivate the tzelem elohim, the Godliness,within us. To forget this is to forget that the Torah begins withGenesis.

We are Yisrael — those who wrestle with God andwith life. Torah is the record of our struggles. Being human bringsprofound questions. Being human brings enormous pain. Being human isso often a mystery. Torah is our answer to the problem of beinghuman. Torah is wrapped up with life and death, with loneliness andlove, with slavery and freedom. To reduce Torah to a fixation on potsand pans, to a preoccupation with the size of the Etrog and the shapeof the Lulav, is to forget that the Torah begins with Genesis.

Who needs Genesis? Anyone who finds life achallenge and seeks the greatest wisdom ever penned.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom inEncino.