In the beginning of God’s creation of the heavens and the earth.
Every year we start the Torah cycle. And every year, the same questions are revisited when we read Genesis.
What is the story of creation doing in the Torah?
The Torah is not a history book. The purpose of the Torah is to relay G-d’s commandments to the Children of Israel. Indeed, as Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, the 11th Century commentator known as Rashi, puts it, the Torah should have begun with the first commandment — the setting of the new moon to mark the Jewish calendar.
If the story of creation is necessary, G-d should have placed it in a separate book. Indeed, the Book of Chronicles takes the reader from the creation of the world to the destruction of the First Temple. Or, the story of creation should have been inserted at the end of the Five Books of Moses.
As usual, Rashi quotes the Talmud. The purpose of beginning the Torah with the creation of the world is meant to attribute all existence to G-d. It is to stress that G-d decides all: He gives; He takes. His will explains everything — particularly the fate of the Jews.
“If the nations of the world tell Israel,” Rashi writes, “‘You are robbers in that you conquered the lands of the seven nations,’ they will say, ‘All of the earth is G-d’s. He created it and gave it to whoever is righteous in his eyes…'”
Rashi could have selected one of literally dozens of explanations from the Midrash and Talmud. His choice seems to be completely out of time. This sage, a wine dealer who spent most of his nights writing a commentary on Scriptures and Talmud, lived in one of the darkest ages of Jewish history — the Crusader era. The Catholic Church helped organize tens of thousands of followers for a war on Jerusalem. But on the way to the Levant, the Christian soldiers made sure to kill as many Jews as possible.
In 1096, Rashi saw first hand the barbarity of the Crusaders and their holy war. His family and friends were slaughtered in the French town of Troyes by mobs that roamed throughout Western Europe. Nine years later he died.
But even in those days of blood Rashi and other sages dared to think the unthinkable — that the Jews would return to their land after a long and bitter exile. From the moment of their entry, the Jews would be condemned by the world for stealing a country from others. Indeed, today’s Palestinians conveniently claim their descent from the ancient Canaanites.
The answer given by the Zionist movement and the State of Israel has sought to focus on modern history. No, the Zionists bought the land from the Arabs; they provided the natives with jobs, healthcare and technology. For peace, Israeli leaders would be willing to cede even most of the land to the Arabs. Indeed, the transfer could begin without peace.
Experience has shown that this answer persuaded no one.
The answer by the sages to the world’s complaint focuses on G-d. The universe belongs to Him and He decides who gets what. His decision is based on righteousness. The predecessors of the Jews lost the land because of their sins. When the Jews turned away from G-d, they, too, were exiled. There are no eternal rights.
“In His will, He gave it to them, and in His will, He took it from them and gave it to us,” Rashi writes.
And that explains all of Genesis. Adam was given the Garden of Eden. After he sinned, he was evicted. The sons of Adam inherited the earth and when they were driven by evil, G-d flooded the world. Noah’s descendants approved a world dictatorship that tried to fight G-d through the Tower of Babel. That regime soon disintegrated. Sodom and Gomorrah were situated in the most fertile region on the planet. When cruelty reigned, the cities went up in flames.
That point has not been lost on gentiles. Jimmy Carter studied the Bible avidly and in his younger days was a Christian missionary. When he became America’s president in 1977, he was determined to focus on the Middle East, particularly the Arab-Israeli conflict. He was immediately struck by a dichotomy that colored his perception of the issue. The Muslims of the Middle East were devout in their faith. The Jewish leaders of Israel were defiantly atheistic. His question, which he raised with Israeli leaders: how could a state that didn’t believe in G-d claim legitimacy?
“Israel was punished whenever its leaders turned away from devout worship of God,” Carter recalled in his book “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid” as telling former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir.
Moses Ben Nachman, known as the Ramban, would agree. He writes that Genesis must begin with G-d’s creation of the world because it represents “the root of faith.” Without this, Torah observance and scholarship are meaningless.
Without faith, there is chaos. The men of science would argue that the world is millions of years old. The theorists would cite Darwin or the Big Bang Theory or employ such terms as the “cosmic microwave background.” Understanding creation, the Ramban says, remains unattainable to virtually all of mankind. It requires something much deeper — the tradition passed from G-d to Moses and through the sages. Some might say that understanding G-d’s work marks faith above reason.
And that explains G-d’s presence in this world. When the world was empty the “spirit of God was hovering over the face of the water.” The lesson is that even in our darkest hour, G-d is with us and can change things in a flash.
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.