The meaning of Reishit (Bereishit)

This Shabbat we restart our reading of the Torah with Parshat Bereishit, and as Rabbi Sacks has previously pointed out (Three Approaches to Halacha, 1987), the very first word of the Torah hints to a tension regarding the priorities of every Jew, and in particular, every halakhic decisor.

Rashi notes (commentary to Bereishit 1:1 s.v. Bereishit Bara) that one of the implied meanings of the word  ראשיתis ‘Torah’ (which, in Mishlei 8:22, is referred to as ראשית דרכו – the beginning of His way). This suggests that by starting the Torah with the word בראשית we are being taught that the purpose of the universe is to uphold pure Torah values.

At the same time, Rashi also notes (ibid.) that the Jewish people are referred to by the term ראשית (as evident from Yirmiyah 2:3 which states that the Jewish people are ראשית תבואתה – the first of His crop). This suggests that by starting the Torah with the word בראשית we are being taught that the purpose of the universe is for the existence and flourishing of the Jewish people.

Though one approach to these remarks is to say that these two interpretations complement one another, Rabbi Sacks believes that a deeper message is being taught here because are times when a prioritisation of pure Torah values may mean that we disregard certain elements of the Jewish people and vice versa. For example, by emphasising the importance of Shabbat observance and prioritising the ראשית of Torah over Jewish peoplehood, Shabbat observant Jews may choose to disregard those who do not regard Shabbat as being important to them. Conversely, by being more inclusive towards all Jews including those who violate Torah laws, it could be argued that one is prioritising the ראשית of Jewish peoplehood over Torah. This leads Rabbi Sacks to surmise that ‘the supreme halakhic task’ is to mediate between the Torah and the Jewish people, and to establish ‘which takes precedence in a practical conflict between Jewish law and the Jewish people?’.

However, what I’d like to suggests is that a different discussion also related to the Parsha can help us solve the question of which ‘Reishit’ takes precedence.

The Gemara Yerushalmi (Nedarim 9:4) records a debate regarding which Torah principle should be classed as the כלל גדול בתורה (the great rule of the Torah). According to Rabbi Akiva, this rule is found in Parshat Kedoshim in the words ואהבת לרעך כמוך– love your neighbour like yourself (Vayikra 19:18). However, we are told that Ben Azai identified an alternative verse, from Parshat Bereishit, as the כלל גדול בתורה. Immediately following the narrative of Kayin & Hevel, we are told זה ספר תולדות האדם – this is the book of the generations of Adam (Bereishit 5:1), and according to Ben Azai, this is the כלל גדול בתורה.

Now it seems clear that, according to Rabbi Akiva, the greatest rule of the Torah is about caring for others. But what are we meant to learn from the verse from Bereishit that Ben Azai is quoting?

To answer this question we must turn to Gemara Yevamot 63b which discusses the duty of having children. The Gemara notes the opinion of Ben Azzai who says that anyone who ‘does not engage is propagation is considered to be like someone who sheds blood and diminishes the Divine image. To this, Rabbi Eliezer responded to Ben Azai saying, “there are some who preach well and practice well; others practice well but do not preach well. You preach well but do not practice well”, meaning that while Ben Azai’s remarks seemed compelling, they were not reflected by his lifestyle as Ben Azai was a bachelor. To this, Ben Azai replied, “what shall I do seeing that my soul yearns for Torah? The world can continue through others”. Thus, Rambam rules (Ishut 15:3) that anyone like Ben Azai who is so in love with Torah that they do not wish to marry, is not a sinner.

I believe what we see from this debate between Rabbi Akiva and Ben Azai an example of a debate about which takes precedence in a practical conflict between Jewish law and the Jewish people?. Ben Azai is saying that זה ספר תולדות האדם – this book, this Torah that I love – is more important than marrying, having children, and showing love to other people, whereas Rabbi Akiva disagrees, stating that ואהבת לרעך כמוך – loving people – is an even greater principle than loving the Torah.

The conclusion we draw from this debate is that though there are rare exceptions like Ben Azai, in almost every case the ראשית of peoplehood comes ahead of the ראשית of Torah and this means that while we must remain dedicated to pure Torah values, we must also be inclusive towards all Jews.


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