Today we open the Book of Books anew. Perhaps our people’s most enduring and most tangible gift to the world, we hear the echoes of the Bible in world religions, in legal systems, in classical and modern political philosophy, in art, and in literature, to name but a few venues. And as we peer in, we hope to find something both timely and timeless.
It is in this spirit that I turn to the most venerated of Torah commentators, Rashi. We’d expect that our tradition’s most indispensable commentator’s first words would give us a window into the great project of the Bible, its meaning, its bigger picture, and its charge to us. This is what we find:
Said Rabbi Isaac: It was not necessary to begin the Torah except from “This month is to you,” (Exod. 12:2) which is the first commandment that the Israelites were commanded.”
Rabbi Isaac’s opening question, in other words, is a suggestion that the Torah should begin with the first mitzvah given to the nation of Israel, over in the 12th chapter of Exodus (which starts with calendar keeping and moves quickly to Passover).
Really? I mean, is it possible for a moment to think it’s worth skipping over all of Genesis? The Garden of Eden, the flood of Noah, the covenant of Abraham? Is there no value in the story of the quarrel of brothers, Joseph’s pitiful exile to Egypt, and the reunion with his family? What is the Jewish people without a shared history? It’s nearly impossible to think of a Judaism without any of those things. What would half of us be named? What, indeed, was Rabbi Isaac even thinking by proposing the question?
We might first ask ourselves: what is the genre of this book? Because understanding how I categorize a book is the first step to understanding the book. If I read to you Poe’s words: “You are not wrong, who deem // That my days have been a dream;” and told you that this is an excerpt from a medical journal, you may begin to wonder what condition is causing me to sleep all day. But now, since you know it is a poem, you can read it differently. Though the words are the same, a different genre yields a different meaning. So, is this a book of history? Legend? Myth?
It is important to understand that behind Rabbi Isaac’s question and his answer lies an assumption about the genre. In wondering why not start at Exodus 12, Rabbi Isaac is assuming that this is a law book. And this assumption remains intact. Indeed, the word Torah itself implies that this is a book of instruction, from which we are to learn how to conduct ourselves, how we must be governed, and what our core values are. This is no history book. This is a now book.
If that is so, then what is the value of the 50 chapters of Genesis?
For if the nations of the world should say to Israel, “You are robbers, for you conquered by force the lands of the seven nations [of Canaan],” they will reply, “The entire earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He; He created it (this we learn from the story of the Creation) and gave it to whomever He deemed proper When He wished, He gave it to them, and when He wished, He took it away from them and gave it to us.
Rashi’s interpretation of Rabbi Isaac’s answer is that Israel belongs to the Jews, no apologies necessary. This may sound like some prehistoric anti-BDS talking point, and indeed, something deeper is going on. Ramban takes issue with Rashi, and we can understand why. Rashi cannot answer why his interpretation fits with our genre. As Ramban points out, the story of Genesis, indeed, the story of the Bible, is a story of people in flux. How long does anyone get to stay put? Adam and Eve get the boot from the Garden, Cain is forced into a wandering exile, and Noah gets kicked off dry land for a while. Abraham leaves his homeland, Jacob runs from his homeland, and Joseph goes down to Egypt land. And I don’t have to tell you how much we ended up shlepping around the desert. What does the decimation of the Tower of Babel have to do with kibbutzim in the north?
For the Ramban, the theme here is more expansive than the Jews in Israel. In the Bible, sin and exile are neatly intertwined. Crime begets justice in an unfolding system of reward and punishment. The two categories of reward and punishment can be reduced to one category: consequences. Mankind is taught that our actions have consequences. And that, in turn, means that someone, or Someone, is paying attention. Indeed, in our parsha, it is God, not man, who notices man’s loneliness. God notices us. Amazingly, after God expels us from the Garden, He then crafts clothing for us. God pursues the outcast. The fact that God punishes us for sins paradoxically leads us to conclude that God cares about us.
That’s my message this week, but pardon me for using my soapbox for a moment. The story of the Bible is a cosmic drama detailing the romance between God and Man. But sometimes, the drama is just that: “romantic.” What happens when God seems to turn His face away? Four children, all under 10, were just orphaned, their parents brutally murdered in front of their own eyes. As a young father, I can’t imagine a worse nightmare than to leave your young children behind in the world, alone. In times like these, what do we do with those 50 chapters of Genesis?
I think they apply now more than ever. Because the natural conclusion of the notion that God cares about us is that He wants us to care for each other. In Genesis, the schism between the children precedes the exile. It is their interdependence and their choice to be “their brother’s keeper” that precedes the redemption (take a look at Moshe and Aaron). God just left us with four children to take care of. I urge you to take a look at One Family’s fund for the Henkin children and give like you would to your own children. Rewrite the shortcomings of our ancestors in the 50 chapters and be your brother’s keeper. We should never know such sorrow.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.
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