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Moses appointed twelve emissaries to scout out the Holy Land and return with a report. The representative for the tribe of Ephraim was Moses’ primary disciple, Joshua. Until this time, the lad’s name was Oshua. But Moses added a letter to his name and called him Joshua.
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Home » Bereishit Parshah, Life Is Beautiful

Bereshit: Beginning with Genesis

Submitted by on October 15, 2020 – 11:12 amNo Comment | 2,416 views

The Torah begins with the Genesis of history—the creation of the world. The Torah is not a history book. It is a manual for life —the world Torah means instruction. When we see a historical nugget in the Torah, we must ask why it was included, what instruction for life it conveys? We must ask the same of Genesis. Why does the Torah begin with creation, should not the manual for life begin with a Mitzvah, an instruction for life, rather than a story about creation?

Our sages asked this very question and offered an interesting explanation. The day would come, they said, when the nations of the world will accuse the Jewish people of stealing the land of Israel. When that day arrives, we will point to the opening chapter of the Torah and explain that the whole of the world was created by G-d and belongs to Him. It is not ours to take, it is His to give.

How refreshing it would have been if this answer had underlined the Israeli government’s response to this accusation. Rather than engaging in convoluted arguments about historical and legal rights, we could state succinctly that this land was given to us by G-d. Many worry that the nations would dismiss this response as nonsensical. But experience has shown that when other faith groups declare their faith articles with conviction, it is respected around the world.

However, as intriguing as such a debate might be, it hardly belongs in a discussion about Genesis. Although it is a critically important subject, it is hardly sufficient to serve as the opening statement, and therefore, a foundational statement of the Torah. If the Torah is a manual for life, it should include guidance on how to deal with this geopolitical nutcracker, but it need not serve as the Torah’s opening.

This leads us right back to our original question, what foundational message for life does the fact of Creation teach us and why is this the genesis of the Torah?

Is it Relevant?
When you open the Torah and discover its transcendental ideals, the high bar that it sets for human behavior and character development, and its faith in the inherent goodness of humanity, when you learn about G-d’s absolute goodness and His complete mastery of the world, you wonder whether this is an abstract theory that has no bearing on reality or if this is really meant to serve as a guide for life.

The Torah demands that we be honest, humble, generous, and faithful. The Torah urges us to strive for refinement, sensitivity, spirituality, and transcendence. The reality is that life seems completely incompatible with these ideals. We live in a world with corrupt and dishonest leaders, manipulative and greedy corporations, deceitful and bloodthirsty criminals. We live in a world filled with lust, arrogance, conceit, and deceit. We live in a broken world filled with temptation, obsession, and addiction. We live in a world filled with illness, tragedy, and death. We live in a world filled with violence, murder, and crime. We live in a world filled with terror, war, and weapons of mass destruction. We live in a world filled with poverty, desperation, and starvation.

Science and the human conscience have certainly improved over the years. Life today is much better than it was in the dark ages, but it is hardly consistent with the ideals and guidance of the Torah. The genesis question that one must ask even before one begins to study the Torah is whether it is a relevant document. Does it have a contemporary message for real life or is it a fascinating intellectual undertaking best suited to the ivory tower?

This is the underlying meaning of the question that our sages placed in the mouths of the nations when they explained why the book of Genesis begins with Creation. They complain to us that we are thieves because we stole Israel from them. The land of Israel is not just a geographical set of coordinates on the world’s map. The land of Israel is a state of holiness and spirituality. The question is this, is this state of holiness represented by Israel and the Torah an oasis that stands alone or does it relate to the world?

If we can’t formulate a Torah message for all of humanity, we are in danger of failing our mandate as a light unto the nations. The Torah is the blueprint for humanity. If its message relates only to Jews who divorce themselves from the world’s reality and seclude themselves in little bubbles of holiness and spirituality, the Torah does not speak to the world. The world is then correct to charge us with the crime of stealing or reserving the message of Torah and Israel for ourselves. For our little bubbles.

Directed or Random
The Torah, therefore, begins with Genesis. This teaches us that the world is not a random collection of arbitrary choices and events of chance. The world is directed by its creator in a deliberate and specific manner.

This can only be true if it was true at the point of genesis—at the beginning. If Darwinism is correct and the world began with a random collection of subatomic particles coalescing, imploding, and exploding in a random manner following only the survival of the fittest, then indeed reality is a seething collection of random choices driven by the need for survival. Illness and tragedy are the natural consequence of weakness. Selfishness, greed, power, and corruption are the natural tools of the powerful in their pursuit of survival. This is the reality of existence and there is no escaping it. Indeed, the Torah’s vision of moral transcendence, ethical comportment, and spiritual refinement is irrelevant in this world.

But if the world’s genesis is creation, then the world has an overseer. It belongs to someone who is responsible for it and directs it. Events are not casual and even cataclysmic events have purpose.  Moral depravity is not endemic to life. Moral transcendence and spiritual refinement are possible. It is a matter of choice.

Genesis of Creation
This is the response that our sages articulated when they explained why the genesis of Torah is creation. The world is not ours to take, it was created by G-d, and therefore, belongs to G-d. And it is His to give. Even if life seems impervious to the Torah’s message, even if reality seems divorced from the Torah’s guidance, even if humanity seems so immoral as to be irredeemable, the fact that G-d created this state of affairs, means that with His guidance we can improve it. His guidance is provided to us in the Torah and when we follow its instructions, we can make the world a holier and better place.

This is not just a diplomatic response to a geopolitical charge. This is a fundamental, introductory teaching that is critical to the study of Torah. Without this introduction, we may as well give up on the entire Torah. It is an irrelevant document with value only to academics and theologians. Those with a practical air about them, have nothing to learn from the Torah.

The Torah, therefore, begins with the genesis of creation. The world might seem random, but it is not. It might seem G-dless, but it is not. It is might seem morally depraved, but it is not inherently so and not condemned to remain this way. The world is inherently good. Human nature is inherently capable of improvement. Life is inherently meant to succeed and to thrive. The world a divinely created and beautiful garden, waiting for us to fill it with healthy fruit bearing trees.[1]

[1] This essay is based on a discourse delivered by the Lubavitcher Rebbe on October 23, 1954.

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