Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg
The first Rashi in Breishis quotes a famous Chazal about why the Torah begins how it does with the story of creation. Chazal ask why the Torah does not begin with the first Mitzvah given to Bnei Yisroel, i.e. Rosh Chodesh at the end of Geulas Miztrayim? In answer to this straightforward question we see a cryptic answer.
Chazal explain that the Torah begins with the creation account to teach about HaShem’s might creating the world. This way if the nations of the world accuse Bnei Yisroel of stealing the land of Israel from the Canaanim, we can reply that since HaShem made the world He owns it. If HaShem owns the world, it is His to give and take away. He willed that the land of Israel be given to the Canaanim, and He willed it be taken away from them and given to us.
This is a strange answer to the question Chazal asked about why the Torah does not begin with the first mitzvah. How does this answer explain the need for all of sefer Breishis? Seemingly this only explains the need for the creation story.
Secondly how are we to understand the hypothetical dialogue between the Jewish people and the nations of the world? Is this argument supposed to work? Do we really expect making reference to our Torah and to the act of creation to carry political weight with the rest of the world?
Lastly what is the theory of the maskana (conclusion)? Chazal’s question makes clear what it supposed the book of Torah to be, a book of Mitzvos. The maskana does not provide a clear alternative to this theory. According to the maskana what kind of a book IS the Torah if not a book of Mitzvos? Imagine trying to place the Torah in the appropriate section of a library. Chazal’s starting premise suggests that the Torah belongs in the legal section since it is a book of Mitzvos. Which section is the maskana suggesting the Torah belongs?
To answer these questions it is important to refine the scope of the discussion. Because the term “Torah” is often used as a ubiquitous reference to the entirety of Judaism it is easy to forget that there are two Torahs, Torah Shbichtav and Torah Shbaal Peh (the Written and Oral Torahs respectively). Chazal’s question here concerns only the Torah Shbichtav. The Torah Shbaal Peh on the other hand IS a “book” of Mitzvos. Chazal are analyzing what kind of the book Torah Shbichtav is and are asking whether it is a similar kind of work to Torah Shbaal Peh or something different entirely.
In order to appreciate this distinction we need to understand the conceptual difference between the two Torahs. Were the two Torahs identical in kind there would have been no reason to separate their respective modes of transmission between an oral and written form. One basic deduction we can make about the difference between them is the effect each mode of transmission would have on people’s access to that Torah. An oral tradition is necessarily restricted, with only those people entrusted with the tradition having full access. A written book however belongs to no one. It is in the public domain and anyone can read and interpret it as he likes.
The public nature of the Torah Shbichtav means that it speaks to all people, not just the scholars and chachamim concerned with Mitzvos and Halacha. It serves as a cultural orient that directs the nation’s values and sense of self. Stories are often used in this way in the ancient (and modern) world, crafting the place that each society feels it occupies by framing heroes and villains and charting where the nation came from and where its destiny lies.
With this clarification of the scope of Chazal’s question we can attempt to answer the questions. The dialogue with the nations is not necessarily diplomatic advice, rather it serves as a literary device to the hypothetical nations of the world asking the Jew by what right does he come to be and occupy space in the world? Who is he?
For a nation to even ask this question of itself is truly extraordinary. What other people even stops to question the basis of their legitimacy? The standard narrative is just the opposite. Each nation feels it is the blessed children of the gods or fate and the world rightly revolves around them, simply waiting for them to realize their grand destiny as the exceptional nation chosen to rule the world.
The Jewish people however cannot fall prey to such self-aggrandizements without losing the essential character of Israelite civilization – Kiddush HaShem. We as a nation must internalize that our role is but to play a part in fostering the knowledge of His Great Name amongst the children of Adam. We are not a special people by any inherent grace, but rather the recipients of His grace as the covenantal people in the covenantal land. The Torah therefore confronts the Jewish people with the uncomfortable fact that the land of Israel is not really their property, they are simply tenants who have been allowed to stay for as long, and only for as long, as the Owner pleases.
This sets the tone for the entire Torah Shbichtav which is a book that communicates to the entire Jewish people the code and ethos by which it is to live. Such a book will certainly include Mitzvos, but it is far more than that. It is a blueprint for society and must include role models, philosophy, ethics and every other cultural cue required by a people in its entirety. The Written Torah then is a political book in the ancient sense of the term (political philosophy in our times). Instructing the nation about what kind of body politic the Jewish people should form and what their place in His world is.