The Torah and Israel: The Purpose of Creation
It is written, “In the beginning G-d created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was desolation and waste, and darkness was upon the face of the abyss, and the spirit of G-d moved upon the face of the waters. And G-d said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Genesis 1:1-3).
We know that the Torah is called reshith (beginning), as it is written: “The L-RD made me as the beginning of His way, before His deeds of yore” (Proverbs 8:22). Rashi explains this to mean: “At the beginning of His creation – before He created the world.” The Torah preceded the creation of the world by 2,000 years, as our Sages have said (Avodah Zarah 9a). G-d rejoiced in the Torah during all that time, as it is written: “I was then His delight every day” (Proverbs 8:30), which according to Rashi refers to the 2,000 years before Creation. The Sages said, “All of Creation has but one purpose: The Torah. It was for the Torah, which is called reshith [beginning]” (Bereshith Rabba 1:1), and the world was created by the Torah (ibid. 1:4). Furthermore, “G-d looked into the Torah and created the world. It was the instrument of His work. His only goal was to give His chosen ones, the Jewish people, the Torah by which and for which the world and everything it contains was created” (Zohar I:24).
We read in the Talmud, “Rabbi Eleazar said, ‘Great is the Torah, since but for it heaven and earth could not endure, as it is written: “If not for My covenant [the Torah], I would not have appointed days and nights, the decrees of heaven and earth” [Jeremiah 33:25]’ ” (Nedarim 32a). This is an additional proof that everything was created by and for the Torah.
The verse states, “The spirit of G-d moved upon the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). Now water symbolizes Torah (Bava Kama 17a), as it written: “Ho, everyone who is thirsty, go to the water” (Isaiah 55:1). Water existed from the start of Creation, since the heavens themselves are composed of fire and water, as the word shamayim (“heavens”) indicates: Eish-mayim (see Rashi on Genesis 1:1). We therefore see that water was brought into existence at the very start of Creation.
The rest of the text also indicates that the world was created for the Torah, in order that man may serve G-d, observe Torah, and proclaim G-d’s Name in the world. Concerning man’s creation, it is written: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the heavens” (Genesis 1:26). Now that Creation was complete, in all its splendor and glory, man was created in the image and likeness of G-d. This was in order that he may resemble G-d in all His deeds and attributes, and that he may be holy like Him, as it is written: “You shall be holy, for holy am I, the L-RD your G-d” (Leviticus 19:2). Man also received a task: “Have dominion over the fish.” This means that he is to plumb the depths of Halachah and Torah, which is represented by water, since it was for it that the world was created. What is the goal of Creation, if not to observe the Torah and to obey the commandments that G-d gives us? It was for this purpose that man was created in the first place, coming into a world where everything is ready and set, and enabling him to receive the Torah and its laws.
Know that all of Creation is a secret of the Torah and wisdom. The Immanent One wanted to raise noble minds, and so He created four worlds (Atzilut, Briyah, Yetzirah, and Asiyah) into which He placed the 10 Sephirot: Keter (Crown), Chochmah (Wisdom), Binah (Intelligence), Chesed (Kindness), Gevurah (Power), Tipheret (Beauty), Netzach (Eternity), Hod (Glory), Yesod (Foundation), and Malchut (Royalty). These are the foundations of the heavens and the earth. Without the Torah, it is impossible to know or understand them. This means that all of Creation and every treasure it contains – visible and non-visible – exist only for the holy Torah.
If all of Creation exists only for the Torah, then why does the Torah begin with “In the beginning G-d created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1), rather than the verse, “The L-RD made me as the beginning of His way, before His deeds of yore” (Proverbs 8:22) and then describe the order of Creation? This would have clearly taught us that the Torah preceded Creation and that the world was created for it.
When the Jewish people were at Mount Sinai, it is written: “They stood at the bottom of the mountain” (Exodus 19:17). This teaches us that G-d held the mountain over their heads and said, “If you accept the Torah, good. If not, there shall be your burial” (Shabbat 88a). We know, however, that the Jewish people had already promised, “Everything that the L-RD has said, we will do and we will obey” (Exodus 24:7).
It is difficult to understand why G-d forced the Jewish people to receive the Torah with this threat hanging over their heads, given that they had already accepted the Divine yoke of their own free will (see Shabbat 88a).
We know that each person has free will and the choice of doing good or evil in this world. If G-d forces us to accept the Torah, what becomes of our free will?
We must first understand why the Children of Israel said, literally, “We will do and we will hear” (Exodus 24:7). Logically, one must first hear a command in order to carry it out. Should they not have said, “We will hear and we will do”? This was the argument used by a godless Sadducee when he mockingly said to Rabba, “You rash people…who gave precedence to your mouth over your ears? You still persist in your rashness. First you should have listened: If it was within your powers, accept; if not, you should not have accepted” (Shabbat 88a).
We may be permitted to suppose that the Jewish people did not declare “We will do and we will hear” under duress, for well before gathering at the foot of Mount Sinai, Jews knew that G-d was watching over and protecting them, and they always had faith in His providence. They knew that they had been saved from the furnace of Egypt and the 49 degrees of impurity (Zohar Chadash Yitro 39a) because they had not changed their names, their way of dress, or their language, since they continued to speak Hebrew (Vayikra Rabba 32:5). It was always to G-d that they addressed their prayers, and it was through Him that they hoped to be delivered from Egypt, as it is written: “The Children of Israel groaned because of the work and they cried out. Their outcry because of the work went up to G-d” (Exodus 2:23). Already before receiving the Torah, the Jewish people had accepted a certain number of commandments at Marah (Rashi on Exodus 15:25), including the bringing of a Passover sacrifice (v.21), the prohibition against eating or possessing leaven during Passover (vv.15,19), the commandment to eat unleavened bread (v.8), the redemption of firstborn cattle (Exodus 13:2), the commandment of Tefillin (vv.9-16), just as they had accepted to observe the holiness of Shabbat (which is equal in importance to all the other commandments – Yerushalmi Berachot 1:5), circumcision (Genesis 17:12), and many others.
This is to say that the Jewish people already possessed some knowledge of Torah well before it was given on Mount Sinai, and they cherished it – particularly since “its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its pathways are peace” (Proverbs 3:17). This is why, when they stated, “We will do and we will hear,” their intention was to say: What we have already practiced up to now and what G-d commands us, we will do, for all the ways of the Torah are good and we will obey Him in everything without fail. But that is not all. We want to know more. May G-d Himself give us more commandments.
Hearing G-d’s voice corresponds to a profound yearning on the part of the Jewish people, and they wanted to hear more. This is the sense of Im shamoah tishmah (“If you hearken diligently” – Exodus 15:26), meaning that if you adhere, without reservation, to your promise to listen to G-d’s words, you will continue to hear them. This is the sense of “we will do and we will hear.”
We now understand why the Sages said, “One who walks on the road and studies [Torah], and interrupts his study and remarks, ‘How beautiful is this tree!’…Scripture considers it as if he were guilty of a mortal sin” (Perkei Avoth 3:7). A tree symbolizes Torah, as it is written: “It is a tree of life to those who grasp it, and its supporters are praiseworthy” (Proverbs 3:18). In other words, one who interrupts his study and says, “How beautiful is this tree!” – how greatly have I learned Torah up to now, knowing the Talmud and its laws; how happy I am with myself, for I understand the Torah and do not need to review what I’ve learned – such a person puts his life in danger. This is because “the Torah is an elixir of life” (Eruvin 54a) only if we continue to study it in depth. The Torah presents 70 different faces; there are 70 facets to the Torah (Bamidbar Rabba 13:15), and a student must review his studies. Otherwise, just like one who sows without reaping, he will forget what he has learned (Sanhedrin 99a). Our ancestors at Mount Sinai are proof of this: Even though they possessed a knowledge of Torah, to the point that they are called “the generation of knowledge,” they also wanted to hear G-d’s voice so as to understand the Torah and its laws. Each of us must follow their example, for the wise listen and increase their understanding (see Proverbs 1:5).
The Jewish people therefore had reason to mention action before understanding, for action referred to the past while understanding referred to the future.
The Torah was nevertheless given with the threat of the mountain hanging over their heads. They had no way to escape, and thus they had no choice. Given that “we will hear” concerns the future, we may understand why G-d held the mountain over their heads even though they had already begun to obey the Torah. Just as both body and soul exist, so too do the written Torah and oral Torah exist. The written Torah is like the body and the oral Torah is like the soul; they both need one another. Just as the body cannot live without the soul, there can be no soul without a corporal housing. By saying, “We will do and we will hear,” the Children of Israel only accepted the written Torah. For them, it was enough to obey the commandments without plumbing the depths of the ideas on which they are based. Such obedience, devoid of every urge to uncover G-d’s secrets, is certainly a good thing, for “Seek not what is too difficult for you.” Nevertheless, G-d wanted it otherwise. He threatened them by holding the mountain over their heads and saying, “If you accept the Torah, good. If not, there shall be your burial.” The Children of Israel had no way to escape, and so G-d said to them: Just as you are now under the mountain and are lost with no way to escape, neither to the right nor to the left, so too if you accept only the written Torah. You will not be able to understand it and you will remain lost, not knowing left from right, and you will be deprived of the advantages of the Torah and its goodness, to the point that it will bury you. If you accept only the written Torah, it will be like a body without a soul, which must be buried, and you will be lost in the written Torah. You must therefore also accept the oral Torah, and then you may come and go from this mountain, for you will also have a soul.
Those who understand the depths of Torah know that the oral Torah is a revelation of the written Torah’s hidden meaning. Rabbi Menachem M. Halperin, in the introduction to his book Eypha Shlema, writes that the Torah hides sublimes secrets that constitute its soul.
The oral Torah is the soul and life of the written Torah, and it is impossible to understand one without the other. This allows us to assert that G-d did not force the Children of Israel to accept the Torah under duress, since they declared, “We will do and we will hear.” Rather, G-d only wanted to explain to the Jewish people that the foundations of the heavens and the earth were created with the purpose of carrying out both the written and oral Torah. The oral Torah is the soul of the written Torah, and it is essential for understanding what is written – the body of the Torah.
The answer to the question asked earlier (namely why the Torah begins with the words “In the beginning G-d created” rather than “The L-RD made me as the beginning of His way, before His deeds of yore”) becomes clear. The world was created for the Jewish people to receive and observe both the written Torah and the oral Torah. The word bereshith (“in [the] beginning”) demonstrates this, for be represents the written Torah and reshith represents the oral Torah. These are the foundations of Creation, and only after them were the heavens and the earth created. In other words: In the beginning, for the written Torah and the oral Torah, G-d created the heavens and the earth, the entire universe, and everything it contains.
At the beginning of Creation, the heavens were created. They represented the oral Torah, which is celestial, the soul of the Torah. Its secrets are only revealed to one who is diligent and persistent in Torah study, one “who fears the L-RD, who greatly desires His commandments” (Psalms 112:1). The creation of the earth connotes the written Torah, the body of the Torah that was given on Mount Sinai, which is as humble and submissive as the earth.
Afterwards it is written, “And the earth was desolation and waste, and darkness was upon the face of the abyss.” This means that if a man only studies the written Torah (the earth), he will only be desolation and waste. Being only a body, he will not be able to come and go at will, and he will seem like a dark abyss. This is because an ignorant man walks about in darkness, without knowing where he is going. But then “the spirit of G-d moved upon the face of the waters.” The spirit of G-d, which is the oral Torah – the life and soul of the written Torah – moved over the waters, and “water is the Torah” (Bava Kama 17a). Man can therefore become fulfilled in this world. How is that possible? “And G-d said, ‘Let there be light.’ ” Light is necessary to understand the hidden secrets of the Torah, and this light is the oral Torah, which illuminates the written Torah. The written Torah and oral Torah are like two inseparable lovers, and it is by their merit that the world and all Creation exist.
Israel and the Torah (written and oral) form the essential elements of the creation of the world and the foundation of the heavens and the earth. They teach us the meaning of life and show us the path to follow. The world rests on the merit of the Jewish people, who observe the written and oral Torah, and who obey its laws as they were given by G-d, the Creator of the world.