5774 - #04
WHAT IS TORAH?
The comments of Rashi, Bereishit 1:1, the very first of his Biblical commentary, have perplexed the commentators throughout the ages. Much of the study of Rashi is built upon the attempt to discover what it was that led Rashi to voice the comment that he did. We often ask: what was Rashi’s question? or: what was bothering Rashi? In this case, though, the question is explicit; Rashi basically voices it himself. Why did the Torah begin with Bereishit instead of the verse Hachodesh hazeh lachem [This month is for you…]?1 The strange thing, though, is that the commentators are still left asking the very same questions they usually ask: What really is Rashi’s question? What really is bothering Rashi? The essential problem is that they really have difficulty with Rashi’s stated question. Why did the Torah begin here, with Creation? With what other presentation should it start? It actually makes sense that the Torah would begin with the story of Creation – so what really is bothering Rashi?
The answer Rashi gives is also seen as problematic. He states that we are informed that God created the world to answer any possible challenges against us that our conquest of Israel was immoral. If all the land is actually God’s and He gave it to us, we cannot be labeled as thieves for taking it from the ones who were at the time residing upon it – and thus our actions cannot be defined as immoral.2 The problem is that this may explain the need for the Creation story but what about all the other material in Bereishit and the earlier sections of Shemot. – why the need for the record of these events to also be included in the Torah text? If the answer to this question is that Rashi was never questioning whether material should or should not be included in the Torah text but simply asking why begin with Creation, how does his response then specifically answer his question? If the story of Creation was to be included in the Torah text in any event, why would its placement at the beginning strengthen the argument for possessing the Land of Israel? The story would be there anyway.
My thoughts, recently, are that Rashi may have had a broader agenda. Through these brief comments he may have actually wanted to clarify, in some respects, the very nature of Torah itself. What do we really mean when we use the word Torah? In a narrow way, we may be referring to the written text to which we apply the term; in English, the Five Books of Moses. In a broader manner, the term may also be referring to the entire corpus of Divine Wisdom which was presented to us, orally and in writing, at Sinai. These two definitions, however, are still lacking in fully responding to the question I am posing. Regardless of whether you are using the narrower definition or the broader one, how do you see this collection of information and knowledge? What exactly do you expect to learn, discover and/or experience as you encounter it? What is the purpose of Torah? What Rashi may be stating is that if you approach Torah from one perspective, with a certain view of its purpose, you would think that the presentation would best begin with Hachodesh hazeh lachem. The fact that it does not must inform you however, that this perspective is incorrect and it must have a different purpose. With Torah beginning with Bereishit, what, thus, is its purpose and how should we approach it?
The verse of Hachodesh hazeh lachem could be defined as the opening statement in the formation of the authoritative relationship between God and the Jewish People. It is no wonder that it could thus be presented as a proper beginning for the Torah text. If the overriding purpose of Torah is to instruct us on how to develop a connection with God, indeed, it would have made the most sense to have begun the Torah with it. While this is not to say that this goal is not important, Rashi, though, in explaining why the Torah began with Bereishit is informing us, therefore, that there is an even more overriding purpose for Torah that must be further recognized. This is the recognition of the Torah as the Word of God and, as such, the presentation of most important information to be applied in all human decisions.3
I recently saw someone describe Sir Isaac Newton as seeing the universe as a riddle, placed before us by God, with our goal being, through our thought processes, to try and discover its ideas. I thought that this was, in fact, a good way of describing Torah. Through Sinai, God did not give us a simple manual to life.4 He however, gave us information which demands our further analysis and which we are, then, to apply in our decision-making. The key is that, while, at times, this information and analysis would support the decision we would otherwise have made, at times, it also will not. This is what Rashi is informing us in explaining why the Torah had to begin with the clear statement that it is the work of the Creator. Through reason, we may have uncovered that there is a moral value in not stealing; we may not have needed Torah to have informed us of the moral problem with theft.5 The conclusion through reason alone would have been, though, that it was wrong for the Jewish People to conquer Israel; that is a form of theft. Thus the Torah is informing us that you also have to get your facts right. Through the Revelation at Sinai, we are informed of such facts, that the land was not taken against the Will of its Owner. This is the very essence of Torah. It is the Revelatory presentation of information which we are to apply, through thought and uncovering the riddle, in our lives.
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht
1 Shemot 12:2.
2 We may wonder how this presentation of God the Creator found in a Jewish text could serve as a response to attacks from other peoples. Why would they believe this text in the first place and thus accept this explanation? It must be that the answer is really for us. See, further, Nishma Spark of the Week 5754-03.
3 It is interesting to note that there are many works that have been written recently by individuals who, on one hand, wish to label themselves as observant and/or Orthodox but, on the other hand, do not accept this basic authority of the system based upon Torah being min hashamayim, from Heaven. Why would such individuals believe themselves to be bound by this system if they do not accept its Divine origin? Why do they want to observe Halacha (even as they understand it)? It seems that such individuals recognize of some type of spiritual value in the process. Regardless of the truth of the Divine origin of Torah, such individuals believe that its directions offer some type of feeling of connectiveness with God. Within this perspective, this idea of Rashi may even be more significant. If one is going to include, indiscriminately, the ideas of Torah in one’s decision making, one necessarily must accept the truth of its assertions.
4 See my The Cloud of Revelation, Nishma Introspection 5763-1.
5 I am touching here upon the distinction between chukkim [Torah laws which are not in accord with reason] and mishpatim [Torah laws which reason would have determined even if God did not reveal them].
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