In the very beginning of his commentary on the Torah, Rashi quotes a well known Midrash as to the purpose of the book of Bereishit:
Rabbi Yitschak said: The Torah which is the Law book of Israel should
have commenced with the verse (Shemot 12:2) “This month shall be unto you the first of the months” which is the first commandment given to Israel. What is the reason, then, that it commences with the account of the Creation? Because of the thought expressed in the text “He declared to His people the strength of His works (i.e. He gave an account of the work of Creation), in order that He might give them the heritage of the nations.” For should the peoples of the world say to Israel, “You are robbers, because you
took by force the lands of the seven nations of Canaan,” Israel may reply to them, “All the earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He; He created it and gave it to whom He pleased. When He willed He gave it to them, and when He willed He took it from them and gave it to us” (Rashi, Bereishit 1:1)
This suggests that the goal of the Torah is to teach law, and anything disconnected from that goal must be explained. Hence Rabbi Yitschak said that there is another lesson worth teaching as well, ownership of land. This explains why the entire book of Bereishit is relevant despite its lack of mitzvot.
The Ramban notes that the book of Bereishit is certainly relevant even though it does not contain mitzvot because it teaches us critical lessons in the belief in God and His creation of the world. However the details of the stories in the beginning of the book (Creation, Adam and Eve in the garden, the Flood, etc.) are so difficult for the layman to understand that they should have otherwise been skipped had it not been for Rabbi Yitschak’s teaching about the land.
Ibn Shuaib quotes the above opinions but adds another layer. He writes that all of Torah can be divided into three categories:
- The secrets of Maaseh Merkavah and Maaseh Bereishit – The esoteric parts of the Torah that share, perhaps to the elite few, the process of the creation of the physical and spiritual worlds.
- The positive and negative commandments – These are the lists of instructions to mankind for how to live.
- The stories – These are shared with us to bolster our belief in God and take what we readily observe (age of the universe, for example) and fit it into our belief system.
Ibn Shuaib is stating that there are valuable lessons in faith that can be learned from these early stories in the Torah. It’s not just all esoteric and beyond our comprehension as the Ramban suggests. One such lesson he shares is based on a well known question with regards to the character of Noach.
In describing Noach, the Torah tell us:
This is the line of Noach. Noah was a righteous man; he was wholehearted
in his generation; Noach walked with God. (Bereishit 6:9)
The commentaries grapple with the words “in his generation.” Was Noach only righteous in comparison to the people or his generation, or was he objectively righteous regardless of the caliber of people in his generation? These words in the text create an ambiguity and as such these two interpretations are debated in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 108A).
But what specifically is the measure a Tzadik, a righteous person? Is the question whether or not Noach performed enough acts of kindness? Is it a matter of how much Torah he studied?
Ibn Shuaib suggests that the core question determining whether or not Noach was a tzadik in only his generation or in any generation is the measure of his belief in divine providence, hashgacha. The more a person believes that God runs the world, the more a person is a tzaddik. So the question is if Noach believed in God, and the power of God, as much as people like Abraham, or less than them. His performance of mitzvot, chesed, and Torah study are not relevant for this determination.
Accordingly, righteousness is measured not in actions, but in belief. (Not to suggest that righteous people can be scoundrels!) The prophet Chabakuk said this as well:
His soul is puffed up, it is not upright, but the Righteous person shall live by his faith (Chabakuk 2:4, and see Makkot 24a)
Thus the take-home message of the parsha according to Ibn Shuaib, is that we are to have faith in God. We are to believe that God runs the world and directs us in our everyday affairs. The more we see God in our life, the more righteousness we will be able to attain.
Rabbi Joshua ibn Shuaib (1280-1340) was a Spanish Torah Commentator and Kabbalist. He was a student of the famed Rashba, and teacher of Rabbi Menachem ben Aaron Ibn Zerach. Ibn Shuaib quotes extensively from the latter part of Tanach as a means of expressing the core values of each Torah Parsha. He seamlessly weaves together the rationalist interpretations of Rambam and the mystical interpretations of Ramban into his own commentary on the Torah.