In the beginning of G‑d's creation of the heavens and the earth [and their contents].

-- Breishis 1:1

Classic Questions

Why does the Torah begin with the creation of the world? (v.1)

Rashi: Rabbi Yitzchak said: Surely, the Torah should have begun from the words, "This month shall be for you..." (Shemos 12:2), the first commandment which the Jewish people were given. Why does it begin with "In the beginning"?

The reason is [conveyed by the verse]: "He declared to His people the power of His works in order to give them the inheritance of the nations" (Psalms 111:6). I.e., if the nations of the world will say to the Jewish people, "You are robbers, for you seized the land of the seven nations [who inhabited Cana'an]," they will reply: "The whole earth belongs to G‑d. He created it and granted it to whomever was deemed fit in His eyes! It was His will that they should have it, and by His will He took it from them and gave it to us!"

Sifsei Chachamim: Rashi was troubled by the fact that the Torah begins with stories when the Torah was given for the sake of its mitzvos. These stories seem superfluous.

Nachalas Ya'akov: Rashi was not suggesting that the section from Bereishis until, "This month shall be for you...," should not be written at all. Rather, his question was: Why did the Torah begin with discursive narrative rather than with its primary content, the mitzvos. The account of creation, together with all the stories that follow it, could have been included at the end of the Chumash, or in a separate book.

The Rebbe's Teachings

What is Troubling Rashi? (v. 1)

Sifsei Chachamim writes that Rashi was troubled by the inclusion of stories in the Torah, which is primarily a code of mitzvos.

However, it is difficult to accept that this was the only point troubling Rashi, since there are many other stories written throughout the Torah whose necessity he does not challenge. Therefore, the inclusion of a story does not appear to be a "problem" which requires explanation.

One could argue (as Nachalas Ya'akov does) that Rashi was not troubled by the actual inclusion of these stories, but rather, he was concerned about why the Torah begins with narrative, rather than with its primary content, the mitzvos. The account of creation and other stories should have been included at a later point in the Chumash.

But if this indeed is Rashi's question, then what is his answer? According to Rashi, the account of creation was written here, at the beginning of the Torah, to answer a potential challenge from non-Jewish nations that the Land of Israel was unlawfully possessed. Our response to the nations—that the land was given to us by its Creator—would be equally valid wherever it might be recorded in the Torah; the fact that it is recorded at the beg­inning is not crucial to the argument. So if Rashi was merely questioning the placement of the account of creation in the beginning (as Nachalas Ya'akov argues), then he does not appear to have provided us with a solution.

Further Questions on Rashi

  1. Rashi suggests that the Torah should have begun with the words, "This month shall be for you" (Shemos 12:2), because it is the first mitzvah. However, in the book of Bereishis, there are no fewer than three mitzvos recorded: the mitzvah of having children (1:28), the mitzvah of circumcision (17:10), and the prohibition against eating the sciatic nerve (32:33). How could Rashi suggest that the Torah should have only begun with Shemos chapter 12, omitting the above mitzvos?

  2. According to the seven Noachide laws which are binding on non-Jews, robbery is prohibited. Yet we do not find that any nation was punished for conquering another because it was an act of robbery. On what basis could the nations challenge the Jewish people that "you are robbers, for you seized the land of the seven nations"?

The Explanation

The Torah contains the collected teachings given to the Jewish people. Since the Jewish people first assumed their current national character through the Exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Torah, Rashi was troubled, "Surely, the Torah should have begun from the words, 'This month shall be for you...,' i.e., the first commandment which the Jewish people were given." The stories before the period of the Exodus did not occur to members of the Jewish nation, so why are they recorded in the Torah, which is a text of instruction for Jews? They could have been recorded in a separate book, or handed down orally, but they should not have been included in a text of instructions which is specifically addressed to members of the Jewish nation.

Even the mitzvos which are recorded in the book of Bereishis were not given to the Jewish people, but rather to Avraham and his family. Thus, our obligation to circumcise and to refrain from eating the sciatic nerve comes from Sinai, not from G‑d's words to Avraham and Jacob.

Rashi answers that the stories which predate the Exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Torah were recorded as a proof to the nations of the world that the land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people:

According to both Noachide Law and Jewish Law, land acquired as a result of military conquest is not considered to be stolen property (see Shulchan Aruch Admor Hazakein, Orach Chayim 649:10). Therefore, the nations of the world could not possibly accuse the Jewish people of being robbers merely due to the fact that they seized the land of Cana'an.

Rather, the nations' complaint is that the Jewish people transformed the land into a permanently and essentially Jewish one, precluding any nation from identifying it as their own at any future time.

Even if the land will be conquered by another nation, it will remain "the Land of Israel" and Jewish people will still refer to it as their own, perceiving the loss of the land as a temporary exile. For after Jewish conquest and inhabitation, the land became a holy, uniquely Jewish land at its very essence, remaining associated with the Jewish people forever.

This could cause the non-Jewish nations to complain, "You are robbers!" For by conquering the Land of Israel, the Jewish people "robbed" all the nations of the world from ever identifying themselves with the land again. From that point on, it became the Land of Israel, an identity that it retained even after the Jewish people were exiled from it.

The Jewish people can thus reply, "The whole earth belongs to G‑d. He created it and granted it to whomever was deemed fit in His eyes!" I.e., the permanent acquisition of the Land of Israel by the Jewish people is G‑d's will. From the moment He created the world, He already intended that the Jewish people should inherit the land. The permanent acquisition of the land by the Jewish people is thus not robbery, but Divinely willed.

However, this begs the question: If G‑d intended at the very outset of creation that the Land of Israel should be an exclusively Jewish land, to the extent that no other nation could identify with it, then why did He allow other nations to possess it before the Jewish people?

To answer this question, Rashi continues, "It was His will that they should have it; and, by His will, He took it from them and gave it to us!" I.e., the very same Divine will caused both events.

G‑d's intention was that the Jewish people should acquire a non-Jewish land and transform it into a holy land, the Land of Israel. Therefore, He first gave it to the nations, and then He told the Jewish people to conquer it.

In the final analysis, we see that Rashi has explained the necessity for the narrative up to Shemos chapter 12. All this information is required to explain how G‑d intended the Land of Israel for the Jewish people at the very outset of Creation (Parshas Bereishis), and yet He first gave it to the nations (see Noach 10:5, Lech Lecha 12:6 and Rashi ibid.). In order to explain the lengthy delay which occurred before the Jewish people received the land, the Torah describes the "Covenant of the Parts" where Avraham was told that his descendants would be exiled for hundreds of years (15:13). The remaining part of the book of Bereishis is thus required to explain how this occurred in actuality, i.e., how Avraham's descendants went down into Egypt and were enslaved. Then we read finally, at the beginning of the book of Shemos, how the exile ended and the Jewish people left Egypt to receive the Torah and conquer the Land of Israel.

(Based on Likutei Sichos vol. 5, pp. 1ff; Sichas Shabbos Bereishis 5726)