Said Rabbi Yitzchak: The Torah should not have started anywhere but [with the verse,] “This month shall be to you…” 1, 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 2 nations,” they would reply to them: “The entire world is G-d’s; 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 Yitzchak’s 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 Torah’s basic function is to legislate the mitzvot?
Rabbi Yitzchak’s answer is less easily understood. If the Torah’s 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 Israel—namely, that “the entire world is G-d’s; He created it, and He grants it to whoever He desires”—would 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 mitzvot—divine commandments—relating 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 3 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,” 4 and that we are to “Know Him in all your ways.” 5 That everything we do can, and should, become an integral part of our relationship with G-d.
(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, one’s 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 one’s 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, worldly owners!
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-d—not just the matzah eaten on Passover or that percentage of the one’s 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-d’s blueprint for creation, our guide for realizing the purpose for which everything in heaven and earth was made including ownership of Israel. 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 Land”—a world permeated with the goodness and perfection of its Creator.
Based on an address by the Rebbe, Nissan 5, 5740 (March 22, 1980). 6
Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber.