INSIGHT

5769 - #15

FIRST LAW

             

            The famous first Rashi1 in Chumash poses a question that, in itself, bothers the commentators. Rashi asks: why does the Torah begin with Bereishit, i.e. the story of Creation, and not the command of Hachodesh hazeh lachem, the laws related to the establishment of the new month,2 which was the first command given to the Jewish People? What is Rashi’s point? With what else should the Torah have begun? Is there not a value in all the verses between Bereishit and Hachodesh? Were there also not commands, such as milah, circumcision, presented in these verses as well? Gur Aryeh answers that the very purpose of Torah, as evidenced by its very name, is to present instructions and thus it is understandable that one would question the place of the non-legal verses within it. Mizrachi explains that all the mitzvot predating Hachodesh hazeh lachem were actually presented to individuals; this was the first mitzvah given to the collective. These responses may clarify Rashi’s question and the answer Rashi presents may answer his question, yet a new question now also emerges. Why was Hachodesh hazeh lachem chosen by God to be the first mitzvah presented to the collective? In addition, given the perceptions of the Gur Aryeh and Mizrachi, would not the first command given at Har Sinai, the first mitzvah given to the nation in this monumental, collective assembly, be a more appropriate place to begin the Torah?
            Fundamentally, the first command of the Aseret Hadibrot, colloquially translated as the Ten Commandments, was the first mitzvah presented to the nation of Israel in the collective assembly that marked the giving of the Torah. We, in anticipation of receiving the Torah, heard as the first statement of this presentation the famous words, Anochi Hashem Elokecha, “I am Hashem, your God.”
3 Rashi’s question, thus, solely concerned how the Torah was written down. Why did the written transmission of the Torah – the Chumash text that we refer to as the Torah – begin with Bereishit and not the first written presentation of a law to the collective, namely Hachodesh hazeh lachem? My further question, ultimately, is: why not just arrange the written presentation of the Torah in the same manner that the original, oral presentation took? For Rashi not to have asked that question but rather to have wondered about the Torah not beginning with Hachodesh hazeh lachem, he must have perceived an understandable value in the written presentation of the Torah beginning there and not simply with the Aseret Hadibrot. Why would this book of laws begin with Bereishit? To Rashi, it is understandable, though, that this book of laws did not present the written record of this presentation in the same manner in which it was originally presented at Sinai. The actual transcript of these laws had to only begin with the first law presented to the collective even though this presentation was different than the presentation at Sinai.
            The answer would seem to involve context. The presentation of the Torah at Har Sinai was done within a certain context. In fact, this context is indicated in this very first statement of the Aseret Hadibrot as God describes Himself as the One Who took the nation out of Egypt. Even those present at Har Sinai had to understand the context that these laws were being presented to this nation by God Who freed the nation from the bondage of Egypt – and that this context had to be included in the very statement of the presentation. Ultimately, Rashi extends this answer to inform us that to understand the laws of the Torah in its written format, it was important within this written form to preface a presentation of the laws with a narrative, beginning with Bereishit, that outlines the context of this legal presentation. Otherwise, we would not fully understand the laws themselves. Yet, through Rashi’s question, we see that Rashi first thought that the necessary context for this written presentation of the Torah could be achieved with only the presentation of the communal laws preceding the communal assembly at Sinai. What important lesson did we learn from Hachodesh hazeh lachem that affected our whole understanding of Sinai?  
            Three aspects of the mitzvah of Kiddush hachodesh, sanctifying the new month, immediately come to mind that not only present the distinction of this mitzvah but the very significance of this distinction in the context of the entire Halachic system. One is that this mitzvah is incumbent upon and practiced by the nation only as a whole; it is not within the domain of the individual. God’s laws are directed to the nation of Israel qua nation. While many, if not most, Torah laws speak to individuals and demand individual observance, the law is the domain of the nation. The second aspect of this mitzvah is that it defines the authority of the human element in the halachic process. Sanctification of the new month is not simply a scientific endeavour dependent upon an astronomical determination of a lunar event but, rather, is a policy determination within the realm of society. Finally, this mitzvah presupposes the establishment of a legal system in which these types of decisions can be made. Torah Judaism is often defined as a religion of law. It is, in fact, the Divine directive to a nation. The backbone and essence of the manifestation of national identity is the law. It is not surprising, as such, for law to be the language of Torah.
            Rashi’s question is not simply that the Torah should have begun with the first mitzvah given to the nation. The question was built upon the idea that this first mitzvah was intentionally the first mitzvah because it defined the context of all the subsequent Torah directives including the Ten Commandments. Hachodesh hazeh lachem created the context by which we can understand the structure of the entire Torah. It speaks to a legal system and structure. It recognizes the necessity of nationalistic, policy determination. It defines the power of a community in taking control of its own destiny. It, basically, lays the foundation for law, specifically Torah law, to be the backbone of the nation of Israel. Rashi’s question was, as such, why not begin the Torah with the Torah directive that laid the foundation for the legal structure of the nation. This law laid this foundation within the nation prior to the Exodus so that the nation would be able to properly relate to the communal assembly at Sinai that would convene the Torah law. It, thus, should have been the assumed place to begin the written record of the Torah as well. Rashi’s answer now explains that it was still proper for the written Torah record to begin with the story of Creation, to thereby foster a broader, proper context for the law and legal structure. Law must still work within the broader context of moral understanding – yet it must still be recognized as national law.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail

Footnotes

1 Rashi, Bereishit 1:1.

2 See, further, Rambam, Sefer Hamitzvot, Aseh 153 with Ramban.

3 Shemot 20:2.

(c) Nishma, 2009


 


 


 


 


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2006 NISHMA