“Why,” asks Rashi, in his first comment on the Torah, “did the Torah not start with the verse, ‘This month is for you the first of months,’ (Shemot 12:2), the first mitzvah in the Torah given to the children of Israel?” If the purpose of the Torah is to tell us the mitzvot and nothing more, then who needs the narrative sections of the Torah, and in particular, who needs Sefer Bereishit?
The asking of this question immediately suggests its answer. As Ramban writes,
There is a great need to begin the Torah from ‘In the beginning God created…’ because it is the source of our faith, and one who does not believe in this and thinks that the world has always existed is a denier of the essence (of belief), and his Torah has no meaning.
There is more to the Torah than just mitzvot, says Ramban. Our life of mitzvot must be a religious life. We must do the mitzvot not because they are our tradition or because they give structure and rhythm to our lives, but because God commanded them. Without our core underpinning beliefs, our practices would constitute a lifestyle but not a religion. For this we need the narratives of Shemot – we need to know that God redeemed us from Egypt and gave us the Torah at Mt. Sinai. This turns our practices into mitzvot and places them in the context of a brit, a covenant, with God.
The narrative of Breishit, of God’s creating the world, serves a different purpose – it is the lens through which we see the world. If we believe that the world was not always there, then when we look at it we will not see just matter, and we will not take its existence for granted. If we truly believe that the world is God’s creation, we will learn to see God’s handiwork in every blade of grass and we will look at the world with awe, gratitude, and a sense of wonder.
The stories of our foremothers and forefathers, the primary narratives of the book of Breishit, play yet a different role. These stories, by and large, are not devoted to laying down principles of faith. Rather, they show us what it means to strive to live a proper life when such a life is not defined by the mitzvot of the Torah. Although our Rabbis tell us the avot kept the entire Torah before it was commanded, this is certainly not the simple sense of the verses. These narratives tell a different story – one of men and women, parents and children, who are at times in personal conversation with God, who seek and struggle to listen to and intuit God’s will, to live up to a moral sense of right and wrong, and to build a family and a life based on these principles. It is a religious and moral life, but not a life of halakha.
For us who have the benefit of halakha and mitzvot to give us more precise guidance and structure, the stories of the avot and imahot teach us to not limit our sense of our obligations or of what it means to be a good person to that of halakhic observance. As Natziv (Rav Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, 1816-1893, Lithuania) states in his introduction to his commentary on Bereishit, the Torah is referred to as the Sefer HaYashar, the Book of the Upright, because:
The generation of the Second Temple consisted of righteous and pious people who devoted themselves to the study of Torah, but who were not upright in their ways of interacting with the world. Therefore, because of the baseless hatred that they had in their hearts, they suspected that anyone who practiced differently than they in their serving of God was a Sadducee and a heretic. This brought about bloodshed, in its extreme manifestations, and led to all the evils in the world, until the Temple had to be destroyed…
For God who is upright does not tolerate “righteous people” such as these, but only those who walk in the upright path in matters of the world as well, and not who go in a twisted path although it be for the sake of heaven, for this leads to the destruction of the creation and society.
This was what was praiseworthy about the forefathers. Not only were they righteous and pious and loved God as much as possible, they also were upright, that is, they interacted with the nations of the world, even the idolaters, with love and were concerned for their welfare for this is what sustains creation (emphasis in original).
A person can live of life of mitzvot – can be “righteous” in the religious sense – and be a bad person. There is a particular danger, says Natziv, when he allows his religious beliefs to identify other people as sinners or heretics; this will give him religious license – in his mind – to act in morally heinous ways. But this is a perversion of what God wants. There is a basic morality, one rooted in creation itself, which dictates how we must interact with all people. This is what the book of Breishit is about: teaching us to follow the path of our foremothers and forefathers, a path that is independent of and complementary to that of the mitzvot of the Torah, a path that is embedded in the world that God created and that must be followed if we hope to sustain that world and to enable it to flourish.
A similar idea can be found in Sefat Emet. Commenting on Rashi’s opening question, he writes:
The Torah was given primarily for its mitzvot; this Torah is the Written Torah. God nevertheless wanted to make clear that even this physical world and all of creation were also created through the power of the Torah. As the Rabbis say, “God looked into the Torah and created the world.” This is the Oral Torah which is dependent on the actions of people. All of the stories of the forefathers are to demonstrate that from their acts, a Torah is created.
There are not just two Torahs, says Sefat Emet, not just the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. There is a third Torah, the Torah of how we live our lives. It is a Torah which emerges from how our foremothers and forefathers lived their lives. It is a Torah which teaches us how to act even were there no mitzvot to give us specific instructions.
Another way to say this is that there are two Torahs from God, each with its own oral Torah. There is a Torah whose primary text the word of God and a Torah whose primary text is the world that God created; there is a Torah of God’s revelation and a Torah of God’s creation. The Oral Torah of the revealed written text is the entirety of Rabbinic literature: the Talmud, halakha, and all their commentaries; it is how the rabbis interpret God’s words and translate them into to the laws and intellectual discourse which govern our lives. The oral Torah of God’s created world is how the forefathers lived their lives without the structure of halakha; it is how they interpreted their moral, ethical and religious duties by looking out into the world, into their souls, and into the minds and hearts of others.
There is a rabbinic component to this oral Torah as well. Rashi asks why we need the stories of Breishit. We may ask why we need the stories of the Talmud. What is the function of the aggadah, of rabbinic stories and why are these stories embedded in the analytic and legal sections of the Talmud? These stories are there to teach us how to live our lives in ways that go beyond halakha, which exist in ongoing discourse and dialogue with halakha. If the halakhic sections are the oral Torah of Shemot through Devarim, then the aggadaic sections are the oral Torah of Breishit, they are the oral Torah of creation itself.
My friend and colleague Rabbi David Kalb shared with me that this idea can be taken to its logical conclusion. Just as the oral Torah of the written text did not stop with the rabbis of the Talmud but continues on today in every beit midrash and in every person who learns Torah, so the oral Torah of how we live our lives did not stop with the avot or even with the Rabbis of the Talmud. It continues in every person today, in every individual’s exercise of her moral and ethical judgment. It is interwoven in her every decision of how to best weigh competing demands and best apply abstract principles in her interactions with a co-worker, a storekeeper, her children and her parents.
This is why the Torah tells us these stories. A story of how a good life is lived allows us to better live our lives, to write our own stories of how a life should be lived, and to pass these stories down to our children and they to theirs. Let us always strive to learn from the Torah of creation and of Breishit, and to be partners with God, continuing to interpret and apply it each and every day in our own lives.