The Book of Genesis

Jan 4, 2015

Photo credit: Yehoshua Halevi

בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ׃

When Hashem began to create heaven and earth—

b'-ray-SHEET ba-RA e-lo-HEEM AYT ha-sha-MA-yim v'-AYT ha-A-retz

Genesis 1:1

The book of Genesis, Sefer Bereishit, is the first of the Five Books of Moses.  Bereishit begins with a detailed description of the creation of the world.  It continues with a brief history of the generations from Adam until Abraham, and then focuses on the lives of the Jewish patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, culminating with the Joseph story and the descent of the family of Jacob to Egypt.

 

Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, the famed medieval commentator known by his acronym Rashi, asks a compelling question.  If the Torah is essentially a book of law, why did God choose to start it with the stories of creation?  Would it not have made more sense to begin with the first law commanded to the Jewish people?  Quoting the verse from Psalms 111:6, Rashi responds “The strength of His works He related to His people, to give them the inheritance of the nations.”  He explains that the Lord began His Torah with Creation in order to give the people of Israel a response to anyone who accuses them of stealing the Land of Israel.  Since God is the creator of the world, it is His to give it to whomever he chooses.  Though He initially gave it to the seven nations of Canaan, when they were no longer worthy He chose to take it from them and give it to the Children of Israel.

 

This theme of choosing is present throughout the Book of Genesis.  Bereishit is the book of creation.  Most obviously, it describes the creation of the world, but beyond that it is about the creation of a people; the nation chosen by God to be his representatives in this world and to carry out His divine mission of being a light unto the nations.  In every generation in the Book of Genesis, there is a person or group of people that stands out from the rest in the areas of morality and recognition of God, that is chosen by God.  Once a person is chosen, the continuation of the Torah focuses on him and his offspring, often emphasizing their positive qualities.  Seth is the chosen son of Adam, Noah is chosen to survive his entire generation, and the Bible then focuses on the descendants of Noah’s son Shem.  Ultimately, God chooses Abraham, his son Isaac and Isaac’s son Jacob.  With Jacob, the choosing is complete and a nation is born.

 

As Rashi implies, the Torah is much more than a book of laws; it is the legacy of the Jewish people.  It tells of the creation of a nation, chosen by God to be His emissaries of kindness, justice, goodness and recognition of the one true Creator.  And, it starts with the creation of the world so that there would be no question that the Land of Israel belongs to them.  From the very beginning of the world, God intended for the People of Israel to do His holy work from the holy Land of Israel, and that from there their light would emanate.  May our study of Sefer Bereishit strengthen the goodness within each of us and our appreciation for the Land of Israel.

 

Rabbi Naphtali Weisz
Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel

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