Thursday, October 08, 2015

Bereishis: Start with the "Why"

בְּרֵאשִׁית, בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים, אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ.
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” (Bereishis 1:1)
רשי: בראשיתאמר רבי יצחק לא היה צריך להתחיל [את] התורה אלא (שמות יב ב) מהחודש הזה לכם, שהיא מצוה ראשונה שנצטוו [בה] ישראל, ומה טעם פתח בבראשית, משום
“In the beginning: Said Rabbi Yitzchak: It was not necessary to begin the Torah except from “This month is to you,” (Shemos 12:2) which is the first commandment that the Israelites were commanded. Now for what reason did He commence with “In the beginning?” Because…” (Rashi, Bereishis 1:1)

Figures at top of stele "fingernail"
above Hammurabi's code of laws.
[Wikipedia, source]
To offer an alternative answer, the Torah begins with the “why” instead of the “what”. While the mitzvos surely are important, if the Torah had started with the first commandment given to the Jewish nation, they (the audience back then) and we (the audience today) would not know why we should listen to that commandment. For all we know, this could be the Code of Hammurabi, an ancient Mesopotamian law code. It could be the laws of Eshnuna. It could be the laws of a cult of Molech worshipers. What is the nature of the Giver of these laws? What is the ethical nature of these laws? Why should we feel in any way bound by them?

Parashas Bereishis establishes Hashem as the Creator. He creates the world. Then He creates Adam and Chava, places them in a wonderful garden, and then gives them the first commandment.

Sefer Bereishis outlaying the early history of the world, showing how He was concerned with humanity behaving in a moral manner, interceding when necessary, in the Dispersal, the Flood, and in Sedom. Sefer Bereishis also explains the special relationship Hashem developed with the forebears of the Jewish nation, and how He took a wandering Aramean, Avraham, and transformed him first into a great family and then, from a great family into a great nation. The beginning of Sefer Shemos, prior to that first commandment, explains how Hashem redeemed the Jewish nation from servitude in Egypt. Indeed, we see this role of Creator or Redeemer as a basis for the laws of Shabbos (see Shemos 20:7-10 and Devarim 5:11-14).

We rely on zechus avos, the merits of our forebears, for Hashem’s continued kindness to us. But, in parallel, one big reason for our continued relationship with Hashem is gratitude for how he treated our forebears.

A tangential, related thought, about mirrored kindness and zechus. We read in Sefer Yirmeyahu:

הָלֹךְ וְקָרָאתָ בְאָזְנֵי יְרוּשָׁלִַם לֵאמֹר, כֹּה אָמַר ה', זָכַרְתִּי לָךְ חֶסֶד נְעוּרַיִךְ, אַהֲבַת כְּלוּלֹתָיִךְ--לֶכְתֵּךְ אַחֲרַי בַּמִּדְבָּר, בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא זְרוּעָה.
“Go, and cry in the ears of Jerusalem, saying: Thus saith the LORD: I remember for thee the affection of thy youth, the love of thine espousals; how thou wentest after Me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown.” (Yirmeyahu 2:2)
What is this חֶסֶד נְעוּרַיִךְ, this “affection of thy youth”? The standard explanation, given by Rashi, is that this is the kindness that the Israelites showed to Hashem:

זכרתי לך.   אם הייתם שבים אלי תאוותי לרחם עליכם כי זכרת חסד נעוריך ואהבת כלילת חופתך שהכללתיך לחופה, ולשון הכנסה הוא, כלולותיך נוצי"ש בלע"ז, ומה הוא חסד נעוריך? לכתך אחר שלוחי משה ואהרן מארץ נושבת יצאתם למדבר, ואין צדה לדרך כי האמנתם בי. 
I remember to you: Were you to return to Me, I would desire to have mercy on you for I remember the loving kindness of your youth and the love of the nuptials of your wedding canopy, when I brought you into the wedding canopy, and this (כלולתיך) is an expression of bringing in. Your nuptials (Noces in O.F.). Now what was the loving kindness of your youth? Your following My messengers, Moses and Aaron, from an inhabited land to the desert without provisions for the way since you believed in Me.” (Rashi, Yirmeyahu 2:2)

An alternative explanation can be found in the commentary of Mahari Kara on the same pasuk:

(זכרתי לך חסד נעוריך) את שכחת חסד שעשיתי לך מנעוריך שגאלתי אתכם מתחת סבלות מצרים והולכתי אתכם במדבר וספקתי צורכיכם במדבר ארבעים שנה והריני מזכיר לך חסד שעשיתי לך מנעוריך כשהלכת אחרי.
“I remember to you: You have forgotten the kindness I have done for you from your youth. For I have redeemed you from under the burdens of Egypt and have taken you through the wilderness, and provided for your needs in the wilderness for forty years. And I am now reminding you of the kindness I performed from you from your youth, when you went after me.”

Sof davar, as we begin sefer Bereishis, we should consider this possible purpose. We don’t start out with the dry laws – the what. Rather, we begin with the role of Hashem, as Creator, as Redeemer from Egypt, and as Developer of the Jewish nation. In this way, we can appreciate why we should perform the mitzvos.

Thus, בְּרֵאשִׁית -- in the beginning, בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ, we should know and appreciate that Hashem created the heaven and the earth.

[1] Bereishis 1:1

[2] Rashi, Bereishis 1:1

[3] Yirmeyahu 2:2, zacharti lach chesed ne'urayich

[4] Rashi, Yirmeyahu 2:2



[5] Mahari Kara, Yirmeyahu 2:2

[6] Shemos 20:7-10, commandment of Shabbos

[7] Devarim 5:11-14, commandment of Shabbos


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