>I imagine that most of us have never questioned why the Torah begins with the Book of Bereishit (Genesis) and why the Book of Bereishit begins with the story of creation. After all this book of Torah begins with a very powerful opening line: ‘In the beginning, God created the Heaven and the earth’ (Gen 1:1), setting the scene for all that will follow. With stories which will take place on the earth, it is good to know from the very beginning that it was created by God. God as the creator of the Heaven and earth is the context for everything else which will follow.
And yet, there are those who have questioned why the Torah chose to begin with the creation of the world. Rashi, arguably the leading Torah commentator of all time, began his commentary on Bereishit by writing: ‘Said Rabbi Isaac, the Torah did not need to start there, rather it could have started with “this month shall be to you”’. If we were to follow this advice we would have skipped the story of creation, the flood, the stories of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs, and the first nine plagues in Egypt. And we would have begun midway through this week’s Torah portion.
This week, as we stand on the brink of the tenth plague and our Exodus from Egypt, ‘And Adonai spoke to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying “This month shall be to you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you”’ (Ex 12:1-2). It as at this moment that we begin the counting of time and the definition of a calendar; this month (which will later be known as Nissan) is the first month of the year.
But the significance is not just in creating a calendar, it is also the moment of the first communal command: ‘Speak to all the congregation of Israel, saying, In the tenth day of this month they shall take every man a lamb, according to the house of their fathers, a lamb for a house’ (Ex 12:3). This is the moment when God commands the Israelites to mark the doorposts of their homes with lamb’s blood so that they will be passed over, when the Egyptian firstborn are killed.
We can re-read Rashi’s question as asking why we do not begin with commandments and why we need all of the preceding stories? Rashi eventually answers the question by saying that we begin with creation because it proves that God created the world, and therefore means that God is permitted to give land to whichever people God chooses, and so Israel are the rightful possessors of the Promised Land. Rashi fails to consider what happens when a person does not accept the divinity of the Torah, and the proof it therefore offers.
However, we might also argue that without the preceding stories and narratives, the statement: ‘This month shall be to you…’ would be meaningless as we would have no context for the trials and tribulations which brought the Israelites down to Egypt.
The power of this moment should not be lost. As the Israelites stand on the brink of the Exodus, when they will emerge out of slavery into freedom, before they can become free people they begin to mark time. We should not underestimate the significance of counting, and recording, time. As slaves their time was not their own, the Egyptians defined every area of their existence, and the passage of time therefore lost all meaning, as days merged together, united by hardship and suffering.
As free people they would be able to define their own time. It was therefore not just the first month of the year, but also the first month of their new existence as free people. This might not be the moment at which Torah should begin, but it is a significant moment on our people’s journey. And as we look through the pages of our diaries and calendars, we should remember that the ability to mark time is a gift we receive as former slaves who are today free.