Said Rabbi Yitzchak: The Torah should not
have started anywhere but [with the verse,] This month
shall be to you..., which is the first mitzvah commanded
to the people of Israel. Why, then, does it begin with, In
the beginning [G-d created the heavens and the earth]?
... So that if the nations of the world say to Israel, You
are thieves, for having conquered the lands of the seven
nations, they would reply to them: The entire
world is G-ds; He created it, and He grants it to whoever
He desires. It was His will to give it to them, and it was
His will to take it from them and give it to us.
Rashi on Genesis 1:1
Torah means law and instruction.
Yet the book of Genesis and the first part of the book of
Exodus read more like a history book than a law book. It is
only in the twelfth chapter of Exodus that the Torah gets
down to the business of conveying to us the 613 divine commandments
(mitzvot) that instruct our lives.
Hence Rabbi Yitzchaks question: Why does the Torah
begin with In the beginning G-d created the heavens
and the earth? Certainly, the story of creation, the
lives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and the account of the
Exodus are of great historical and educational value, but
why begin the Torah with these stories, if the Torahs
basic function is to legislate the mitzvot?
Rabbi Yitzchaks answer is less easily understood. If
the Torahs account of creation and the history of Israel
are required to establish the Jewish right over the Holy Land,
this still does not explain why they must come before the
mitzvot. Our claim to the Land of Israelnamely, that
the entire world is G-ds; He created it, and He
grants it to whoever He desireswould have been
equally valid wherever it appeared in the Torah. In any case,
should the internal structure of the Torah be dictated by
what the nations of the world might or might not say to the
people of Israel?
Obviously, the accusation You are thieves, for having
conquered the lands of the seven nations, and the response
to it implicit in the verse In the beginning G-d created
the heavens and the earth, does not only relate to our
confrontation with the nations of the world. It also addresses
an internal dialogue relating to the very essence of Torah
and its place in our own lives.
As mentioned above, the Torah includes 613 mitzvotdivine
commandmentsrelating to every area of life. There are
mitzvot that pertain to how we eat, dress, conduct our marital
life, do business, and to virtually every human activity and
endeavor from the womb to the grave.
The mitzvot pertain to every area of life, but not everything
we do is a mitzvah. Eating matzah on the first night of Passover
fulfills a divine commandment, and refraining from eating
meat with milk avoids a divine prohibition; but to eat an
ordinary piece of bread on an ordinary Wednesday is neither
obligatory nor proscribed by Torah law. When we wear tzitzit
we observe a mitzvah, as we do when we avoid mixing wool and
linen in a garment; but most of the clothes we wear involve
neither a commandment nor a prohibition. The Torah commands
us to give 10% of our earnings to charity, and forbids us
to steal, lie or cheat; but countless decisions and actions
taken in the course of a business day are completely neutral
by the standards of Torah law.
Hence our lives might be seen as divided into two domains:
the domain of mitzvah, and the domain of reshut (permissible
or optional)acts that neither fulfill nor
violate a divine command.
But the Torah tells us that All your deeds should be
for the sake of Heaven, and that we are to Know Him in all your
ways. That everything we do
can, and should, become an integral part of our relationship
(There are two basic ways in which this is achieved, corresponding
to the two maxims quoted above. All your deeds should
be for the sake of Heaven means that everything one
does is done as a means to that end: one eats in order to
have the energy to do a mitzvah, one earns money in order
to eat in order to have the energy to do a mitzvah, and so
on. Know Him in all your ways means that our mundane
activities are not only a means to a G-dly end, but are themselves
ways of experiencing G-d. For example, ones business
activities are not only a means of earning money which will
in turn be used to do a mitzvah, but an opportunity to observe
the hand of G-d in the dozens of lucky coincidences
that add up to a single business deal, and gain a deeper appreciation
of His providence.)
Here, we are often confronted with the challenge, You
are thieves, for having conquered the lands of the seven nations!a
challenge that might come from without, but which most often
comes from ones own secular self, from the nations
of the world within oneself. A challenge that says:
Enough is enough! When you are acting in fulfillment of a
divine command, that is fine; after all, G-d Himself told
you to act this way. But what business have you commandeering
the secular, non-Jewish areas of life? Must you
turn everything into a religious issue? Serve G-d in the ways
He has told us to serve Him, and leave the rest to their rightful,
But the Torah does not begin with its first mitzvah, but
with the statement: In the beginning G-d created the
heavens and the earth. Everything was created by G-dnot
just the matzah eaten on Passover or that percentage of the
ones income given to charity.
With its opening statement, the Torah is establishing that
it is more than a rulebook, more than a list of
things to do or not to do. It is G-ds blueprint for
creation, our guide for realizing the purpose for which everything
in heaven and earth was made. Every creature, object and element,
every force, phenomenon and potential, every moment of time
was created by G-d toward a purpose. Our mission in life is
to conquer the lands of the seven nations and
transform them into a Holy Landa world permeated
with the goodness and perfection of its Creator.
Based on an address by the Rebbe, Nissan 5, 5740 (March
. Seven nations occupied the Land of Israel before
its conquest by the Jewish people under Joshua: the Canaanites,
Emorites, Hittites, Hivvites, Jebusites, Perizzites, and
. The fringes that the Torah commands to attach
to the corners of a four-cornered garment (Numbers 15:37-40).
. Ethics of the Fathers 2:12.
. Likkutei Sichot, vol. XX, pp. 1-6.