The First Mitzvah
If the Torah is fundamentally a book of law, a work intended to instruct us on how to live a life that is holy and good, why did the Torah begin with the story of creation? More precisely, why did the Torah begin with the story of Genesis—of God’s creation of the world—and not the first commandment to the Israelites which is to establish a calendar: “This month shall be unto you the beginning of the months,” found later in Exodus 12? This is the first question that Rashi, the central medieval commentator on the Torah, asked on the opening words of the book of Genesis.
The question itself is interesting because of its assumptions as to the nature of the Torah. Originally, the question was asked by Rebbi Yitzhak, but Rashi shares it with his readers because he seems to agree with its assumption. The Torah is a book of law and its purpose is to lay claim to the emotional and behavioral lives of the Jewish people. It is not only our cultural document, our formative literary and historical record; rather, the Torah at its core pushes us toward responsibility for our lives and the world and intends to instruct and command. Our Torah is a work of mitzvot (commandments) inspired by our understanding of the Mitzaveh (the Commander). So it is with this assumption of the role of the Torah that Rashi asks the question, “Why does the Torah begin with the story of creation?”
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, one of the great minds and translators of traditional Judaism over the last century, places this question at the center of his religious worldview. Indeed, it is this question, Soloveitchik suggests, that ultimately elicits the most compelling message that Judaism has to offer the world. Soloveitchik begins by affirming Rashi’s question, but lamenting the fact that Rashi missed the central halakhic directive of the Jewish experience. The first command to the Jewish people is not to establish a calendar. Soloveitchik responds to Rashi’s query:
If the Torah spoke at length about the creation of the world and related to us the story of the making of heaven and earth and all their host, it did so not in order to reveal cosmogonic secrets and metaphysical mysteries but rather in order to teach practical Halakhah. The portion of the creation narrative is a legal portion, in which are to be found basic, everlasting halakhic principles. (Halakhic Man, pp. 100–101)
Soloveitchik argues that the first chapters of Genesis make the following argument: God created the heaven and earth, human beings, and everything that walks the earth, swims in the seas, and flies in the sky; however, human beings were singled out from all of creation to be created in God’s Image. Man and woman are more intimately connected to God than any other aspect of creation. Having been created in God’s Image was a gift of grace from the Divine to all humanity and yet it also constitutes a challenge to be met. Just as God is fundamentally a creator, so too human beings, as a consequence of having been created in the Divine Image, must create.
The first commandment to the world, the command that stands behind all other commandments, is given in the opening verses of Genesis. The human being is obliged to go out into the world and fashion, transform, and renew the cosmos. The greatest aspiration of the Jew is to create, to bring into the world new ideas, healing, relationships, and expand the boundaries of knowledge. Most fundamentally, the human being must refine and renew him- or herself. According to Soloveitchik, Genesis chapter 1 is the source for the inherent dignity of all human beings. God gave us a precious gift: all of humanity, in all its diversity, has been created in the Image of the Divine. And this is also the Great Mitzvah and the central challenge of all our lives. Genesis commands that we take this gift seriously and understand its normative implications. Go, create, renew!
The publication and distribution of JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant by Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.