Rashi opens his great commentary on the Torah this way: Rabbi Yitzhak said, it was only necessary to begin the Torah from [the verse] “This month shall be for you” — Shemot, Chapter 12.
In other words, why not begin the Torah where the legal material begins, with the laws of Rosh Chodesh and Pesach? Why include the entire book of Bereshit and the opening chapters of Shemot, which contain no mitzvot? (This isn’t precisely true; there are three mitzvot in Bereshit — be fruitful and multiply, brit milah, and the prohibition of eating the sciatic nerve.) If the purpose of the Torah is to teach law, why include so much non-legal narrative?
Rashi answers his question this way: We begin here to that if the nations of the world accuse Israel of stealing the land of the seven Canaanite nations, we can answer them by saying, the entire world belongs to the Holy Blessed One — He created it and He can give it to whomever He chooses.
Of course, this might explain the need for the first chapter of Bereshit, the account of creation, but what about all the stories that follow? The fact is that the Torah is more than a law code. Despite the way it has often been translated — as “law” — the word Torah means “teaching.”
It’s true that sometimes the best way to teach is through straightforward statements — do not murder, observe Shabbat and make it holy — but sometimes we learn best through our own experience and by hearing stories and working out the lessons for ourselves.
Whether we call them fables, parables, midrash, or chasidic tales, stories allow us to grasp complex ideas and to learn lessons that aren’t suited to incorporation into law codes. Sometimes it means we learn the hard way — we make mistakes, we get embarrassed, we have to go back and do things over again the right way, but lessons learned this way stay learned. Rarely do we make the exact same mistake twice.
Early in my business career, I discovered that another employee with the same title was being paid quite a bit more than I was. So I went to my boss and asked for a raise because it wasn’t fair that we weren’t being paid equally. His response was to rattle off half a dozen reasons why the other employee was more valuable to the company than I was and therefore deserved to be paid more. It was humiliating, but I got the point. You don’t ask for a raise by complaining about what someone else is being paid, but by demonstrating what you are contributing to the business.
Of course, had I been a student of Torah at that point in my life, I could have saved myself a lot of embarrassment by learning this lesson much less painfully. When the Torah describes the creation of the sun and the moon on the fourth day, it says: God made the two great lights, the great light to dominate the day and the small light to dominate the night and the stars. The Rabbis naturally ask why the verse first mentions two great lights and then one great light and one small light.
The Talmud explains: After God had made the two great lights — the sun and the moon — of equal size, the moon said to the Holy Blessed One, “Master of the universe, is it possible for two kings to share one crown?” God responded to the moon, “Go and make yourself smaller.”
You don’t get far by complaining about what someone else has. Each of us is made in the image of God with unique gifts and talents. Each of us has a unique role in the world. What matters is that each of us offers something that no one else can offer.
Rabbi Joyce Newmark, a resident of Teaneck, is a former religious leader of congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa.