Lately, my two-year-old daughter Hannah developed a cute (and annoying) habit of constantly asking “Why?”
This morning, we arrived a few minutes early to her pre-school and I explained to her that she couldn’t go into the classroom because we were early.
“Why, Mommy?” She asked. And I responded: “Your teachers are cleaning up and getting the class ready for you.”
“Why?” She asked again.
“Because they want the class to be ready for you to have fun and play.”
“Because they love to play with you.”
“Because they love you.”
“Why?” Again, and again, she asked – until I ran out of explanations, and hugged her in exasperation.
This week’s Torah portion, Bereshit, recounts the creation of the world and humanity, and the experiences of the first people, Adam and Eve, in the Garden of Eden. In his first comment on the Torah, Rashi, the preeminent medieval commentator asked why the Torah begins with Genesis. He noted that the first commandment is not found until the book of Exodus 12:1 (where God explained how to declare the new month and set the calendar). Rashi noted that the Torah really didn’t need to begin until then, so why begin with Genesis?
Rashi answered by saying that the Torah begins with Genesis because it demonstrates divine power and authority by recounting creation. Yet it seems to me that the real answer to Rashi’s question is found within the question itself. If one reads the Torah with the question in mind “What should I do?” Then you can begin in Exodus. However, if you’re wondering: “Why do I exist?” then you need to begin in Genesis. Bereshit articulates the purpose of human life, showing how God created humanity and placed them in the garden “to work it and to keep it.”[i] The dual purposes of our lives are to protect and creatively transform the world around us for the better.
In our busy lives, we often get caught up in the “what’s” of life. As we work on the tasks on our unending to-do lists, we can easily forget about the whys – the reasons underlying our choices. Yet, it’s precisely this sense of purpose which rekindles our inner light and gives us the courage to face each new day. We each need to be able to articulate the overarching goals of our lives and why we’re doing what we’re doing. Only by having a vision of our life’s purpose and working towards it, can we attain fulfillment through the ups and downs of daily living.
With Genesis, the cycle of the Torah reading commences anew, and we begin again. As we take our first steps into this new year, one spiritual lesson we can learn from our toddlers is to never stop asking “Why?”
[i] Genesis 1:15.