We are living in a time where religious observance and tradition speaks to people in different ways. It is like being at a kiddush where you eat an array of different foods, and some things appeal more to you than others, so you keep adding them to your plate. Too, the midrash (Shemot Rabbah 5:8) comments how the Torah was received in over seventy languages, meaning everyone present at Har Sinai received the Torah in a way that spoke to them. This is valid, and understandable, though it must be proceeded in the correct way, and misunderstanding can be a cause for concern within today’s society.
Rav Aharon Lichtenstein z’l brings up several points related to this specific area (By His Light, Chapter Three). Firstly, as Rav Lichtenstein says, avodat Hashem is not a department store. “One shops in a department store precisely in response to one’s own needs and desires, and it is part of self-indulgence and self fulfilment”. Those two points do not comply with what it means to serve God. Our observances and traditions must be centered around serving God, and ultimately, we cannot take what we want in God’s world and make it about ourselves. We don’t just pick things we like for the sake of pleasure, or because it may suit us. We serve God for His sake, not for our own, and using the language of Rav Lichtenstein, we do not “pick and choose” because that is not a reflection of what it means to be called and commanded by Divine word.
As an Orthodox woman, I know there are certain mitzvot which don’t apply to me, yet I still strive to live a meaningful life, and I still live by God’s word. To pick and choose to me, seems like I am not abiding to what it means to be a Jew. I don’t choose not to do certain things, it’s just that they do not apply to me as a woman. Yet I am still serving God, I am learning Torah which is then applied to everyday life, and so forth.
Rashi asks the famous question at the beginning of the Torah: why do we start with the book of Genesis? If the Torah is a book of laws and mitzvot, he asks, why does it not start with the first mitzvah of Rosh Chodesh (Exodus 12:2), in the book of Exodus?
Another question proposed by Chazal, is, what is the most important verse in the Torah? This is a question I have found challenging coming to terms with, and is something I have debated amongst teachers and chaverim. How can there be some sort of hierarchy with verses, surely everything was Divinely revealed and we are to make the whole Torah central? I can see why this question can be answered with Shema Yisrael (Devarim 6:2) or V’ohavta L’reakha Kamokha (Leviticus 19:18), as they teach core concepts, but shouldn’t every verse teach or say something to us in its own way?
I want to use Rashi’s question and the question proposed by Chazal to explore my initial point about religious observance and what it means to be a Jew in this world. I think the reason why the Torah starts with Genesis, and why a certain verse in Genesis is the most important, shows us what it means to be a Jew and what it means to serve God properly. I don’t think we can proceed, morally, and religiously without this understanding.
Gan Eden: we are commanded?
The verse says “and God commanded Adam, saying of every tree of the garden you are free to eat” (Genesis 2:16) but this verse is only half, and makes a whole when it is put together with the next verse “but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it: for on the day that you eat from it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17). The first verse would imply not being commanded, whereas once the second verse is added, we are introduced to the reality of being commanded and the essence of humanity. We know that we are commanded to keep kosher, and to put a mezuzah on our doorposts, and not to covet, but God too commands man here, right at the beginning, once created before the book of Exodus.
This moment is defining as to why we start the Torah in Genesis, before the Torah was received. Because here is where man went wrong, and this command was misinterpreted. We know that the outcome of this exact command was disorder. Therefore, we go through a book that teaches us the ABC’s of humanity, basic morality, behavior, living in this world, but also what it means to be a human being interacting with the world that God created and it is about knowing that we are part of the creation.
Rav Lichtenstein refers to this exact verse, using the same previous logic of “picking and choosing” to explain what it means. Being a Jew is not, as Rav Lichtenstein says, “living an anthropocentric life”, rather it is living a life where God is at the center of everything you do. The only way we can get to that verse in Exodus, “and let them make me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8) is if we know how to make God the center of everything we do, and that went wrong right here, in the book of Genesis.
Avodat Hashem is serving God for His sake, but once taking that up, there is a place for self-fulfillment within one’s own Avodat Hashem.
The unique thing about this is that you can find God in everything you do – and that should be the goal of being a Jew, and that is reflective of the verse cited above in Exodus. That doesn’t consist of picking and choosing what you do, or making amendments to the halakha, rather it is keeping to God’s word and living and serving the world around you that God gave you, not changing it. No sanctuary could be made at this point of the Bible, because man did not know how to serve God.
Shabbat: A Hashkafic Model
If we jump to before this episode, just before man was commanded, God finished creating the world and gave us Shabbat. The mitzvah of Shabbat is not just to rest on Shabbat, but it is also to work six days a week and then rest on the seventh day. I will continue to quote Rav Lichtenstein, who places a strong emphasis on the importance of what it means to work (By His Light, Chapter One). Rav Lichtenstein quotes the midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 39:8) where Avraham arrived to what now we call, Rosh Hanikra, and saw the people busying themselves working, and said to himself “I hope that I will have a portion in this land”.
Avraham acknowledged that agricultural, working tasks had given him a sense of being in the Promised Land. I will admit I am quite satisfied by this midrash, in a patriotic and zionistic sense, as “working the land” is something important to me. With regards to the subject of this piece, this midrashic analysis is about being committed intertwined with a culture – two things we must strive for. We also work in a way that we know God created the world, and we are partners in God’s creations; that is where the command also went wrong, with the two trees. The intention of God creating the world was to encourage and empower humanity to strive, and engage with it, bringing order to the creation. That is part of the sequence we are discussing here about what it means to serve God, and to be a Jew.
The world of work, which is associated with our hashkafic dynamic and the mitzvah of Shabbat, is directly connected to how we make God part of what we do, intertwining commitment and commandment. We make commitments with our everyday jobs, university studies, our errands, our social infrastructure, and we combine it with our commitment to God and the commandments.
I know I am commanded to keep Shabbat, but part of that command is to work for six days, so when I am working, I acknowledge and make God part of that experience. When I am in the library, I do the same. When I sit in front of my essay, and hold my calculator, or have a bio-lab, I am recreating something and adding something to this world. Man couldn’t do that when he mis-interpreted God’s command in Gan Eden. He didn’t access God’s world in the right way, to contribute in the right way. And then, I rest on the seventh day, like God did. And I am doing it all through command and commitment. That is what it means to be part of God’s world. This factors into why we must start with the book of Genesis, because we need to know how to be in this world.
Where are you?
In the third chapter of Genesis, once man’s behavior of wrongdoing occurred, God calls to Adam – “where are you?”. This is a very important question. Typically, it would mean, are you in Teaneck, or are you in Jerusalem? It has an instant connection to physical proximity. Yet, as the Malbim says, it is about where one is spiritually. The whereabouts in this instance are about where you are in terms of your avodat Hashem (service of God), and where you are in terms of your role as a moral being. This stimulates the first Rashi, because in order to receive the Torah, we must know where we are in such a sense. Man fails, and therefore cannot go ahead. In order to go ahead, man must seek other truths to eventually climb up the mountain. Man couldn’t follow a command that was so important to how he must live, and man misinterpreted interacting with the land, and God’s creations. As a result, man must ask himself “where are you?”.
In the modern world, where it can be increasingly difficult to combine the work we do, and the spiritual life we live, we can sometimes ask ourselves this question. Living outside of Israel, especially. As a woman, perhaps too. There are other examples. The most important thing is to use this as a tool to really navigate the way we are living our lives. It’s important we make God at the center of what we do, through remembering what it means to be commanded, and committed.
God asked this question as a result of His command not being fulfilled and for there to be change to how human beings adapt.
The Most Important Verse
Going back to the beginning, I think I have pointed out why I think the Torah starts with Genesis. In terms of the question proposed by Chazal, I think I have answered what I think the most important verse in the Torah is, which is the combination of “and God commanded Adam, saying of every tree of the garden you are free to eat” (Genesis 2:16) and “but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it: for on the day that you eat from it you shall surely die”. It is the foundation of what it means to be a Jew, who serves God through commitment and commandment – and that is by being part of God’s creation, and utilizing it properly through Avodat Hashem.
Additionally, I could reference the verse in Ecclesiastes, “fear God and observe all His commandments, for this is the whole of man” (Ecclesiastes 12:13) in such context, which I think very clearly summarizes this important subject and combines these considerations, and I would also deduce as the most important verse
Religious observance and tradition can speak to us in different ways, but avodat Hashem must be at the core of it in order to live a meaningful and concrete life of commitment and command.