Of all the commentaries on the Torah, the one that Jews traditionally turn to first is the commentary of Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, who lived in France in the eleventh century. Rashi’s very first comment on the Torah asks this question:
Rabbi Yitzchak said: The Torah did not need to begin until chapter 12 of Exodus, “This month shall be for you the first of the months.” He’s referring to the chapter that details the instructions for how to celebrate Pesach in Egypt and then for all time. Rashi continues: This is the first commadment that Israel was commanded.
In other words, Rashi asks: Why do we really need the first sixty-one chapters of the Torah? It’s a radical suggestion: Maybe all of Genesis and some of Exodus aren’t really necessary. Maybe this moment, at the edge of Egypt, is the real beginning. The verse Rashi mentions says, "This month is for you the first of the months." This is when time starts. Not when the world was created.
Now of course Rashi is going to come back eventually with a reason why we need the book of Genesis, and there are actually a few commandments in Genesis. But still, he entertains this question about when the Torah really begins, and it’s a good, juicy question.
What Rashi is onto is this: There is something different in the way people experienced God’s presence before the redemption from Egypt, compared to that moment at the edge of leaving Egypt. Rashi’s question suggests that God’s presence in the world, and for people, was not complete and not really understood until this moment of redemption. Which was not just a moment for itself, something incredible that happened once, but also a gift that would be new each year, and each time we think back on it.
So what was missing at the beginning, at the start of Genesis? On the sixth day -- late in the day -- God created the people, the man and the woman. And God said to them, do you see all these things around you? All the other animals, and the beautiful trees, and those stars and the sun and the moon up in the sky? Well before you got here, I made them. All of them, the whole cosmos. I started up high in the sky, and I worked my way down here. All of it, I made all of it -- and for you, in fact!
Isn’t that amazing? So vast, so enormous.... And there is this one tree, among the many that you see here, over there growing out of the ground, and some fruit grows on it, and I want you not to eat that.
Well, they did eat it. And things went downhill from there, to murder and violence and destruction, and God scaled back the plan. Even though the people did multiply quite a lot from the first two, God through Genesis ends up speaking onto to one person at a time.
What happened at the start? What was missing? Why didn’t things really start with Adam and Chava? Maybe it’s just that this idea of the God of the universe is so big that it was just too abstract. It didn’t really do anything in their hearts, for Adam and Chava. Maybe the command itself -- don’t eat this one thing -- maybe that didn’t seem big enough, didn’t sound like the kind of thing a great and mighty God would be asking for, as the basis of some kind of connection and relationship.
Elsewhere in his commentary, Rashi picks up on the fact that even for generations after Avraham there isn’t ever a complete sense of who God really is, or could be, beyond one person at a time.
But it’s different when we get to this part of the Torah. To the end of four centuries of slavery, the very last few days in Egypt.
This isn’t abstract at all. This isn’t: Before you arrived I put those stars far out in the sky. This isn’t: All I have to do is speak, and a tree or a fish comes into being.
In Egypt, God comes down. Down in every sense. Down to the Nile, to the lowest spot in this low valley of Egypt. Down from the sky into those waters of chaos and death that are carved, down, deep into the lowly Earth. God comes down to the lowest people, who are beaten and dehumanized, whose hands are muddy and blistered and broken, who are detached from their souls to the point where they can hardly do anything but groan, who can’t think beyond the terrible things of now.
God has to fight for them, against a tyrant who everybody thinks is really the god. God has to fight for their awareness, to be next to them down in the mud and in their slave-camps and next to the taskmasters, just to get these people even to notice God. God has to frustrate the expectations of all those who think that gods only go with grandeur like Pharaoh has, the beauty and richness of his palace and his temple and his architecture, the hosts who do his bidding.
This is much harder work than creating the universe. If you read the Torah, if you compare Bereshit and Shmot, Genesis and Exodus, the way Rashi does, it’s clear that redemption, rescuing these people, takes much longer, it is a much, more, difficult labor than making the world.
And by coming down, God shows us that more is involved than pure power -- than just the abililty to make things and do things. The task of redemption requires commitment, and loyalty, and dedication. Rabbi Heschel called it divine pathos: God’s essence is that God hurts when people hurt. And when people are enslaved, oppressed, suffering, the hurt is so large that God’s response to that is the largest thing that God does.
And that response is the only thing big enough to go with the notion that God is great.
So Rashi’s question -- why not start the Torah here in Egypt -- it comes from the idea that God’s true nature, the gadol-ness, the greatness that we associate with the notion of God -- it isn’t manifest until God comes down. As far from Heaven, where you were taught to expect God to be; until God comes down to be there in Egypt, to be here.
And at the moment when the Jews are finally first awake to the fact that God is there for them, God says: This moment is also going to be there, always, through this story. So that every time you are oppressed by another Pharaoh, by armies of enemies, or by other kinds of suffering, by illusion or illness or depression, you will know that I come down, I come there, as low as you are or as low as things go. No matter how much mud or blood or tears as there may be. I can’t stop those things from happening, God says, but I can and will be there and fight for you to notice Me, to see me fighting there with you. My colleague Rabbi Sharon Brous was teaching about Pesach and she mentioned a congregant who said that she never understood how it was possible to pray to a warrior God, because she was such a committed pacifist -- until she developed cancer, and needed God to be a warrior on her behalf.
That’s why making the liberation into the beginning of time is the first mitzvah in the Torah. Time starts when we finally experience Adonai not in the starry heavens but close by. Bringing back the reality of redemption, of God’s being with us when we most need it, requires action from us. It’s not just the annual memory on Pesach, but also each Shabbat, when we say in the Kiddush zecher litziyat mitzrayim, that Shabbat is a reminder of going out from Egypt. And we bring back this redemption each and every day in our prayers, when we say Mi Chamocha, the song our ancestors sang with their feet still wet, still sticky with the mud of the Yam-Suf, the Sea of Reeds.
If you are looking for God, it’s not just about Genesis or who made the world. The Ten Commandments do not start, “I am the God Who created the universe.” Instead, they begin, “I am Adonai your God, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” The God in the middle of our prayers is the God of Exodus, the God whose name was revealed finally in Egypt, who rescues and liberates and redeems. Bayamim ha-hem uvazman hazeh -- in ancient days, and still always.