"In the beginning G‑d created the heavens and the earth." So the Torah famously begins its 5,845 verse blueprint for life.

It seems an obvious opening line. What could be more natural than to begin at The Beginning? Yet many of the commentaries question that very premise. The name Torah means "instruction," and indeed, a great part of Torah is devoted to the mitzvot ("commandments"), which are specific instructions from G‑d on how to lead our lives. It would follow, therefore, that the chapters of the Torah containing the mitzvot are more essentially "Torah" than its stories and historical narratives.

Thus the great commentator Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105) asks in his very first commentary, on Genesis 1:1:

The Torah ought to have begun with the verse "This month shall be for you the first of months" (Exodus 12:2), which is the first mitzvah commanded to the people of Israel. Why, then, does it begin, "In the beginning G‑d [created the heavens and the earth]"?

Quoting the Midrash Rabbah, Rashi offers the following answer:

So that if the nations of the world say to the people of Israel, "You are thieves, for having conquered the lands of the seven nations," they would reply to them: "The entire world is G‑d's; G‑d created it, and G‑d grants it to whoever he desires. It was G‑d's will to give it to them, and it was G‑d's will to take it from them and give it to us."

If nothing else, this emphasizes the centrality of the Land of Israel in Judaism. But there is also a deeper dimension to the answer Rashi cites. The dialogue between the "nations of the world" and the "people of Israel" described above also takes place on the individual level, within the heart of every Jew.

The Jew serves G‑d in two ways: a) by fulfilling the divine commandments of the Torah; b) by living his or her ordinary life—eating, sleeping, doing business, etc.--as an exercise in experiencing the Divine and serving G‑d's purpose in creation. But the Jew's internal "nations of the world" (i.e., his worldly outlook) argues: "You are thieves, for having conquered the lands of the seven nations!" What business have you commandeering the "secular" areas of life? Serve G‑d in the ways he has explicitly instructed us to serve Him, and leave the rest to its rightful, worldly owners...

This is why the Torah begins not with its first mitzvah, but with the axiom that "The entire world is G‑d's, he created it." The Torah is telling us: every creature, object and element, every force, phenomenon and potential, was created by G‑d for a holy 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.