Photo Credit:
Rabbi Avi Weiss

Why does the Torah begin with the Genesis story? If it is a book of Law, ask the rabbis, why not start with the first commandment?

To teach us, says Rashi, that God, having created the whole world, is its owner and has the right therefore to give Israel to the Jewish people. Rashi turns a universalistic story into a nationalistic one.

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The Midrash sees it differently. Why start with Genesis? To teach us that just as God created light from darkness, so too do human beings have the power to transform their lives, face all challenges and turn the deepest night into day.

But it’s left for Ramban to suggest that we begin with the Genesis story to teach a fundamental truth – that sin results in exile.

I’ve always been bothered by this idea. After all, many sinners live in mansions, and in the post-Holocaust era it’s impossible to conclude that those who suffered sinned.

Perhaps Ramban was suggesting that exile is not only a physical but a psychological state. Sin separates one from God, and in that metaphysical sense one is exiled.

God, for example, tells Cain after he murdered Abel that he, Cain, will be a wanderer. The text then says Cain left the presence of God and lived in the land of Nod.

Is not the last part of this sentence contradictory? If he lived and took up residence there, why is he a wanderer?

The answer may be that having sinned and left the presence of God, he became a wanderer. Although living physically in the land of Nod, he was in perpetual inner exile.

One of the imperatives of Judaism is to feel the presence of God. If I can feel Him, if I can feel that God cares about me and caresses me, says David in the Psalms, then even in the midst of suffering, I am not alone.

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Rabbi Avi Weiss is founding president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. His memoir of the Soviet Jewry movement, “Open Up the Iron Door,” was recently published by Toby Press.