Asking Good Questions

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Levi Mastrangelo

Rashi begins his commentary on the Torah by making famous a question asked by R. Yitzchak:

,”לֹֹֹֹֹא הָיָה צָרִיךְ לְהַתְחִיל אֶת הַתּוֹרָה אֶלָּא מֵ”הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם”

,שֶׁהִיא מִצְוָה רִאשׁוֹנָה שֶׁנִּצְטַוּוּ בָּהּ יִשׂרָאֵל

?”וּמַה טַּעַם פָּתַח בִּ”בְרֵאשִׁית”

The Torah should have commenced with the verse (Exodus 12:1) “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?

R. Yitzchak answers by quoting a pasuk from tehillim:

כֹּחַ מַעֲשָׂיו הִגִּיד לְעַמּוֹ

לָתֵת לָהֶם נַחֲלַת גּוֹיִם

He hath declared to His people the power of His works,

in giving them the heritage of the nations

R. Yitzchak goes on to explain that, should the other nations accuse us of being land-stealers (in Israel), we will be able to point to Bereishit as evidence of God’s ultimate ownership of the land.

We should answer, “It was God’s will to give the land to [the Seven Nations] and it was God’s will to take it from them and give it to us.”

On the surface, R. Yitzchak’s answer isn’t particularly compelling. As anyone who has engaged in Israel advocacy–formal or informal–can tell you, it’s not an argument that people tend to find convincing, particularly those who criticize us as “land-stealers.”

There are ways of dismissing this concern: we could say that R. Yitchak’s argument would have been convincing to his interlocutors even though it isn’t convincing to ours. Alternatively, we could answer that the argument serves the purpose of reinforcing a truth for ourselves, despite the fact that it won’t be accepted by others.

Still, we’re left with a problem: R. Yitzchak’s answer is only partial. While his question applies to everything that precedes “hachodesh hazeh lachem”- all of sefer Bereishit plus the first two and a half parshiot of Shemot, and perhaps applies even to subsequent narrative sections of the Chumash – his answer applies maximally to the first perek of Bereishit. Why, even according to R. Yitzchak’s answer, should the Torah not have skipped from the end of maasei bereishit (the Creation narrative) to “hachodesh hazeh lachem?”

The solution is to amend our understanding of the intent behind R. Yitzchak’s question and answer. The issues raised above stem from our understanding of R. Yitzchak as bringing a genuine question that was bothering him in the abstract, and then answering that question comprehensively. Instead, we should see R’ Yitzchak as introducing his question for the purpose of stimulating intellectual engagement in Torah and then modeling a rigorous answer.

R. Yitzchak wants us to ask at every turn, “Why not just skip to the laws? For what purpose were God’s rest on the seventh day and the events of the flood and the chronology of the patriarchs’ lives included in the Torah?” And he wants us to engage in the exercise of finding the answers, of scouring Tanach for the right pasuk to contextualize these events and tease out theological truths.

As we embark once again on our year-long journey through the Chumash, may we be zocheh to engage in the kind of rigorous, meaningful talmud Torah that R. Yitzchak meant to stimulate.

 

Levi Mastrangelo (SBM 2016) is a second-year student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.

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