In his very first comment on the Torah’s very first verse, Rashi raises a key question about the essence of the Torah. If the Torah is a book of commandments, and its purpose is to teach us how to serve G-d, what does it achieve by telling us about the creation of the world? The answer that Rashi gives is famous for its defense of the Jewish claim to Eretz Yisrael , but it is not the only answer to that question. The Haftarah of Bereishit provides us with a different one:
אַתֶּם עֵדַי נְאֻם ה’ וְעַבְדִּי אֲשֶׁר בָּחָרְתִּי לְמַעַן תֵּדְעוּ וְתַאֲמִינוּ לִי וְתָבִינוּ כִּי אֲנִי הוּא לְפָנַי לֹא נוֹצַר אֵל וְאַחֲרַי לֹא יִהְיֶה.
You are My witnesses, says Hashem, My servant that I have chosen, so that you may know and believe in Me, and understand that I am He; no power was formed before Me, and after Me, none can exist (Yeshayahu 43:10)
The Haftarah is telling us that the Jewish People have been tasked with testifying to all of humanity that G-d is the only Creator, and consequently, the only source of power in the universe. In its description of the creation of the world, the Torah emphasizes one point over everything else: everything that came into being is there only because G-d wanted it there. There was no unrelated action that a god was doing at the time that accidentally caused the world to be created. There was no committee of gods each of which was responsible for a different aspect of reality. G-d created the world deliberately and intentionally, each and every aspect of it, from the stars in the sky to the fish in the sea. If there are powerful creatures in the world, it is because He created them; if the sun rules the heavens, it is because He put it there. There is no other being besides Him that has any power over any part of the universe.
Each alternate creation story that pagan cultures have adopted has moral ramifications. A world that was created by accident has no purpose. In that case, following whatever biological imperatives drive us is sufficiently “moral.” If the world was created by a conglomerate of forces with varying motivations, then we need to please them all: the god of destruction needs to be appeased with acts of terror, the god of war needs to be appeased with victims and captives. If the stars determine our fate, there is no point in helping the poor, who were destined for their station.
But if there is one G-d Who created the world and called it “good,” then we are responsible only to Him. He, and only He, dictates what is good and what is evil. That is the message of the Torah’s account of Creation.
However, if mankind is not aware of this message, they cannot embrace G-d’s morality and His definitions of good and evil. The task of making them aware falls upon the Jewish People. As the Haftarah says, we bear witness to Creation. The Midrash explains:
ואתם עדי נאם ה’ ואני אל – כל מי ששומר את השבת מעלין עליו כאלו מעיד לפני מי שאמר והיה העולם שברא עולמו לששה ונח בשביעי, שנאמר וינח ביום השביעי.
“You are My witnesses, says Hashem, and I am G-d”: Whoever keeps Shabbat, it is as if he testifies before Him Who spoke and the world came into being, Who He created His world in six days, and rested on the seventh, and it says, “He rested on the seventh day.” (Midrash Yalkut Shimoni Yeshayahu 452)
This Midrash is explaining that keeping Shabbat has a dimension beyond our commitment to Torah and its commandments. By keeping Shabbat, which signaled the completion of the process of Creation, we testify that G-d is the One who created the world.
This concept, that Shabbat is a testimony, is expressed in our Halachic observance. The Shulchan Aruch says that when we say “Vayechulu”, whether in Ma’ariv or during Kiddush, we stand. The Mishna Berura explains why:
ואומר ויכלו מעומד – שהוא עדות על בריאת שמים וארץ ועדות בעינן מעומד.
VaYechulu is said standing — since it is testimony about the Creation of the Heavens and the Earth, and testimony is given standing. (Mishna Berura 271:45)
So, when we stand up to make Kiddush on Friday night, we are not simply standing out of respect for the Kiddush. We stand because by stating the verses that describe how Creation was concluded on Shabbat, we are giving testimony and bearing witness.
Without the Jewish People, there would be no Shabbat, and without Shabbat, the world would not know that there is One Creator, One Source of all that exists, One Arbiter of morality. It would still be shrouded in the darkness of a pagan world, where there is a struggle between the forces of good and the forces of evil, and both need to be appeased.
It is for this reason that the Haftarah outlines the mission of the Jewish People in these terms:
אֲנִי ה’ קְרָאתִיךָ בְצֶדֶק וְאַחְזֵק בְּיָדֶךָ וְאֶצָּרְךָ וְאֶתֶּנְךָ לִבְרִית עָם לְאוֹר גּוֹיִם.
I, Hashem, have called you in righteousness; I took you by the hand. I formed you, and I made you a covenantal people, a light for the nations. (Yeshayahu 42:6)
The “light for the nations” is the righteousness, the morality, that comes from G-d, which is the essence of the Torah, and the purpose of the Jewish People.
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Copyright © Kira Sirote
In memory of my father, Peter Rozenberg, z”l
לעילוי נשמת אבי מורי פנחס בן נתן נטע ז”ל