Ends and Beginnings
This Shabbat, we begin anew the reading of the Torah. Scarcely have we completed the poignant passage describing Moshe's ascent to Nevo and his death, that is then followed by Yehoshua's successful appointment as leader, when we again turn our attention towards the timeless story of Creation, the Garden of Eden, and the travails of the very first human beings, Adam and Eve.
As the Torah ends, Moshe is buried by God and then mourned by His people, the generation of the wilderness that stands prepared to inherit the land of Canaan. But while the concluding passages of Sefer Devarim may also be filled with foreboding, their primary tone is one of exultation and hope. The Torah begins, on the other hand, with the riveting process of God's creation, as absolute and incomprehensible nothingness yields to inchoate matter, and the eventual order that then ensues heralds at first the emergence of simple life forms and finally the fashioning of man. But while these opening chapters of Bereishit may be colored by triumphant moments that are resplendent with expectation and confidence, much of the matter of humanity's origins is instead tinged with the disappointing and drab hues of failure and downfall.
This curious transposition, in which seemingly sad endings are yet hopeful while bright beginnings are informed by disaster, is emphasized liturgically by the ritual reading on Simchat Torah, in which the conclusion of Sefer Devarim is consciously and quickly linked with the commencement of Sefer Bereishit, with scarcely a pause in between. In experiential terms, the matter must point to some of the larger themes that animate human existence, that unearned triumph is so often transitory, while even death may yet be transcended by the shining example of life well lived.
IN THE BEGINNING
This week, we will consider the opening verse of Sefer Bereishit from the perspective of one of the commentaries, who in the course of his explanation obliquely relates to the analysis above. While at first, he seems to perceive the matter with unreserved sanguinity, upon closer inspection, it emerges that his conclusions are much more circumspect. But considered as a whole, his words trace the broad outlines of the very cycles of human existence and Jewish history that are so deftly (and densely!) woven into the fabric of the Torah's timeless message.
In the beginning of the Lord's creation of heaven and earth, the earth was chaotic and void, and darkness was upon the surface of the deep, but the spirit of God hovered upon the waters. The Lord said: "Let there be light," and there was light…
Thus begins the account of the Torah, with the story of a world brought into being by a decisive and deliberate Divine pronouncement. The earliest dawn of cosmic history is therefore immediately impressed with the indelible stamp of God's involvement and concern, a fundamental "law of nature" emphatically borne out by the subsequent narratives that culminate in man's creation. How astonishing, then, that Rashi's (11th century, France) very first comments, based in part upon much earlier Rabbinic sources, call into question the need for these early narratives at all:
Said Rabbi Yitzchak: the Torah should have commenced with "This month shall be for you the first of months" (Shemot 12:2), which is the first mitzva that the people of Israel were commanded. Why then does the Torah begin with "In the beginning?" It is because of what the verses state elsewhere, that "He told His people of the power of His works, in order to give them the inheritance of the nations" (Tehillim 111:6). That is to say that if the nations of the world should declare to Israel: "you are thieves for having seized the land of the seven nations!" then Israel can respond: "all of the world belongs to the Holy One blessed be He. He created it and assigned it to whomever found favor in His eyes. In accordance with His will He gave it to them, and in accordance with His will He took it from them and instead gave it to us!" (Commentary to 1:1).
TAKING RASHI LITERALLY
Ostensibly, Rashi is troubled by an inviolable definition. If the Torah is primarily a book of commandments, then its entire first section, the Book of Bereishit that describes the creation of humanity and the turbulent lives of the progenitors of the Jewish people, is superfluous. The Torah should properly have begun its account with the a different "beginning," namely the mitzva of counting lunar months that is the first command communicated to the people of Israel immediately subsequent to their vernal Exodus from Egypt.
But, avers Rashi, there is a compelling reason for having instead commenced with the account of creation. This was in order to arm Israel with the legal defense that they would one day need to respond to their detractors. Standing accused by the nations of the world of colonialism and theft, of having unjustly seized ancient (and modern!) Canaan from its "rightful owners" who apparently inhabited it from time immemorial, Israel would be able to respond that their conquest and settling of the land was the direct outcome of God's will. It was God Who had assigned it initially to the seven Canaanite tribes and it was God Who subsequently took it away from them and assigned it to His people Israel.
It is highly doubtful that Rashi intended his comments literally, as if the Book of Bereishit in its entirety – the beloved and thought-provoking Patriarchal accounts – could be so cavalierly discarded, as if the Torah is nothing more than a dry list of legal imperatives, as if the nations of the world could be convinced by Israel's impassioned but self-serving and judicially baseless defense. Rather, as he frequently does elsewhere in his commentary, Rashi here makes use of colorful language and compelling imagery to highlight profound and penetrating truths.
THE GOD OF CREATION AND HIS REMOTENESS
The God of creation, Who calls the universe into being out of nothingness, is at once noble and exalted. Appreciative of the awesome forces of nature that we have only recently begun to unravel, we can, as sensitive and thinking people, marvel at His power and stand transfixed by His majesty. Confronted with an Absolute and Transcendent Deity, by His universe so vast and inscrutable, we can now and again uncomfortably contemplate life's larger mysteries and perhaps even be occasionally startled by our own finite mortality.
But at the same time, we can dismiss the urgency of the exercise by relating to God not only as an Absolute but also as an abstraction. The Prime Mover can be acknowledged so long as He is remote, removed, and lost in the mists of time. Though the echo of His acts may yet be perceptible in the background radiation that still ripples across the heavens, the sound is so faint and faded that it may safely be disregarded. If there ever was a God Who fashioned the cosmos, even one Who created man, to acknowledge Him is not to serve Him, because He has since receded into the impenetrable shadows and has thus been rendered irrelevant.
This ominous claim, says Rashi, that drives us away from communion with God and frequently leaves us reeling from the arbitrary cruelty of events that swirl around us, is precisely the error that Israel must refute with their counter-definition of history. The account of all nations has an Author, their fate the product of His will. The arena of human history is not the exclusive preserve of people, the rise and fall of empires solely the result of political, economic or military setbacks. Rather, human machinations are guided towards a goal, the subtle interplay of cause and effect skillfully and silently steered by a God as ever-present as He is all-powerful, as immediate as He is imposing.
THE GOD OF HISTORY AND HIS PROXIMITY
…Israel can respond: "all of the world belongs to the Holy One blessed be He. He created it and assigned it to whomever found favor in His eyes. In accordance with His will He gave it to them, and in accordance with His will He took it from them and instead gave it to us!" That the world has a Creator is probably accepted or at least acceptable to most. But that the Deity is aware, concerned, involved, and ever-present is less appealing to many. This is because while the God of Creation may be awesome, He can agreeably be kept at arm's length, astronomically distant and seemingly detached. Put somewhat differently, is it really conceivable that the God Who marshaled the forces of nature, who fathomed the depths of the earth and stretched forth the immensity of the heavens, should really be concerned with us?
The God of History, on the other hand, brooks no such distance. He is altogether close by and constantly aware, and forever concerned with our choices. But by extension, He demands and commands, rewards and punishes, and nothing and no one escapes His scrutiny. He assigns people to their lands, and gives Canaan to Israel after having seized it from its former inhabitants. Nations rise and nations fall but there is both motive as well as meaning behind the mechanism.
At the same time, the immediacy of God's involvement in human history implies the existence of a moral order by which He governs the world. Unless we are to admit the impossible premise of an absolute, omniscient Deity Who is simultaneously capricious and erratic, we must embrace the inescapable corollary of the "God of History" model: our actions count, our choices make a difference, and the quality of our national lives is directly impacted by the strength of our moral fiber. This too is implied by Rashi's intriguing remarks. Though his words might be misconstrued to suggest the unconditional and inviolable nature of Israel's claim to the land, perceptive students of the Torah know better.
THE MORAL DIMENSION
At every possible opportunity, the Torah makes it abundantly clear that the exile of the Canaanites from their land was more than a simple function of real politik. It was instead the inevitable consequence of their moral and ethical corruption, as the following selections from the Book of Devarim/Deuteronomy make abundantly clear:
When God your Lord drives them out from before you, do not say in your heart: "It is because of my righteousness that God brings me in to inherit this land!" Rather, it is because of the wickedness of these nations that God drives them out from before you…(9:4)
When God your Lord dispossesses from before you the nations that you go in to inherit, so that you dispossess them and inherit their land, then you shall be careful not to be ensnared by them after they have been destroyed from before you. Do not inquire after their gods saying: "how did these nations serve their gods? I will do likewise!" Do not do likewise to God your Lord, for all of the abominations that God abhors they did for their gods, and even their sons and daughters they burned in fire for their gods. Rather, do all that I command you and observe it, do not add to it nor subtract from it (12:29-13:1)
For you are about to enter the land that God your Lord gives you, do not learn the abominable practices of these peoples. There must not be found among you one who causes his son or daughter to pass through the fire, one who practices divination, predicts auspicious times, augers, or does witchcraft. Also, not one who uses incantations, inquires of mediums and oracles, or consults the dead. All those who practice these things are abominable before God, and it is because of these abominations that God drives them out from before you. Instead, you shall be of perfect faith with God your Lord…(18:9-13)
By inexorable extension, Rashi suggests that Israel's own hold on the land may in fact be similarly conditional, a possibility historically confirmed by the their twofold exile from it, in consequence of moral turpitude and all-consuming misanthropy. In the spirit of Bereishit's more dire undertones, the triumphalist tone of Israel's iron-clad claim must therefore be tempered by the sobering caveat that possession is not to be confused with ultimate ownership, that success in the new land will in the end depend upon the people's willingness to choose the good.
Just as our reading of the Creation account followed quickly on the heels of Moshe's death at the Plains of Moav as Israel stood by ready to cross the Yarden into the land, Rashi's comments link these two historically far-removed but thematically intertwined events. The Torah begins with the impersonal and towering account of the universe's formation, but the foundations of that story, that the world has an involved Creator Who is more than an all-powerful abstraction, is the golden thread that ties the fount of the Torah to its finish, and that finish to its fount again. Israel, poised to enter the land as Sefer Devarim draws to a close, can confidently uphold its claim to Canaan's sacred earth because of the message proclaimed as Sefer Bereishit begins. In this way, the timeless nature of the Torah's truths, as comforting and sure as the cyclical reading that seemingly has no beginning and no end, is proclaimed anew.