JTS Torah Commentary, October 21, 2006

Parashat B'reishit 5767
Genesis 1:1–6:8
October 21, 2006
29 Tishrei 5767

This week's commentary was written by Professor Arnold M. Eisen, chancellor–elect, JTS.

Why did the Torah begin where it does, at the very Beginning, rather than with the first commandment given the children of Israel, which comes well into the Book of Exodus? Rashi's marvelous question at the opening of his commentary on the Torah seems designed to provoke many answers, other than the one he himself provides. His answer to the question is intriguing enough, and all too relevant to our day: should the nations of the world accuse the Jews of stealing the Land of Israel from the seven nations of Canaan, we can reply on the basis of Genesis that God created the world, all the earth is God's, "and He apportioned it as seemed right in His eyes." Another reply to Rashi's question has of late seemed even more appealing to me, and no less important. It takes us right back to the matter that provoked that question in the first place.

The Torah begins where it does, this interpretation would suggest, because only by working through these stories of our ancestors time and again can we, its faithful readers in every generation, prepare ourselves for the covenant at Sinai.

In order to understand the Torah's strategy in this regard, consider this question: What does it take to acquire what the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wisely called "the right to make promises?" I think it was Mary Poppins who best explained what Nietzsche meant by this phrase when she warned against "pie-crust promises, easily made and easily broken." All too many promises are utterly worthless, no matter the sincerity of the person making them, because the latter cannot be depended upon to see them through. Will or ability may be lacking; circumstances may well prove beyond control. We have no right to make such casual promises. Friendship and marriage, business and politics, would all be a lot easier if we did not have to worry about this.

Sinai is so important an event in the life of the Jewish people and the world that we cannot allow it to be subverted by commitments easily made and incapable of being fulfilled. One can make a very good case for Rashi's apparent assumption that all of Torah can usefully be regarded as an ascent to and descent from "Sinai"—the moment of encounter with God and of undertaking the obligations of covenant. We need to be sure, before we stand at that mountain, that we are ready for what awaits us there. How does one properly prepare for the promises to one another, to God, and to ourselves that will define us for the rest of our lives as individuals and as a community, in any and every generation? What is required to arrive at such a covenant, to maintain it, and to reaffirm it?

The first thing needed is a firm sense of who we are. B'reishit therefore begins the human story by making it clear, as the rabbis pointed out in several well–known midrashim, that we, who will one day stand in the covenant, are not merely Israelites/Jews but human beings, created with the likeness of all others. Our blood is the same as everyone else's. Indeed, God initiated contact and covenant with Abraham, according to the Torah's account, in order to remedy certain aspects of the human situation. The generations from Adam to Noah marked degenerations to which God reacts with a plan that is meant to benefit the entire world. Who we are as Jews, then, what we do in accordance with the covenant, makes no sense whatever unless we are seen, and see ourselves, as part of the larger human family that like us descended first from Adam and Eve and later on through No·ah.

The lessons we need to learn about being Jewish human beings, whether for the first time or the fiftieth, whether (as Israelites) in the time of Moses or (as Jews) in our own time, are not the kind of teachings that can be captured in an aphorism to be memorized, or gleaned from a tale or two, or imprinted on behavior by any one experience. They require reflection that leads to practice, discipline that stimulates thought, direct as well as vicarious encounters with a host of situations that let us know where the depths and the good lie in life, how to reach them, and what to bring back with us to the "surface" of the everyday. This, precisely this, B'reishit and the Torah as a whole seek to provide.

I count it among my greatest good fortunes that I get to go deeper into life with the help of these stories that we Jews reread at least once each year, and to go deeper into the stories with the help of life. I am thankful, often enough, to face the tests I do not need in life from the safe distance of a reader; at other moments, I wonder what I am to do with this text I am commanded and committed to preserve by the living of it. A verse that strikes me as a gift may be followed at once by another that seems a burden. This, too, is part of what the text seems to want to teach us. Commitments are like that. Promises come with unexpected consequences in tow. Both are fulfilled at our peril.

The Torah seems designed to draw its readers in, generation after generation. Commentators, ancient and modern, have illumined the tools of its literary art. Let me briefly mention three aspects of its approach that to me seem especially well calculated to reach us at the existential level required.

First, the Torah presents us with human beings we immediately recognize as people like us. It is not written for angels, the rabbis noted long ago. It does not feature goody-goodies or spin fairy tales that turn out nicely. Instead we see siblings who quarrel (and worse) from the beginning, husbands who blame and use their wives, parents who are far from exemplary at child-rearing, and always psychological acuity and depth. We know this is about us.

Second, the Torah presents us with a historical world we can recognize. Long before we reach the story of actual genocide at the start of Exodus, we encounter minorities and strangers who fear that their property and their lives will be taken from them by the locals who wield power. The Torah is meant for the world we recognize as our own.

Finally, the God we encounter in Genesis—or, better, glimpse or overhear, thank and wonder at, fear and praise—is a God consonant with what we have learned from life-experience: mysterious, beyond understanding, present, demanding, gracious beyond words. The Torah, too, from the glorious opening verses of Genesis onward, seems in search of language adequate for the promises to God into which it wants to lead us.

Sinai awaits. We get there, time and again, by beginning our preparations at the Beginning.

Shabbat shalom,

Arnold M. Eisen