On the Weekly Torah Portion: Breishit

In the late 11th century C.E., in the town of Troyes in Northern France, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki – universally known by the acronym RASHI – composed the most widely read and important commentary to the Torah ever written. To this day Rashi’s commentary is still considered the seminal digest of rabbinic interpretation of the Torah. In the course of the past millennium hundreds of Torah scholars have composed their own commentaries on Rashi’s commentary!

So, how does Rashi begin his commentary on the Torah? Rashi sets his tone and alerts us to his methodology with his comments on the first phrase of the Torah, Breishit bara Elohim, “In the beginning God created”. It behooves us to pay especially careful attention to Rashi’s opening remarks.

Rashi’s very first action is to cite a teaching of his father, Rabbi Yitzchak*. This citation signals Rashi’s dedication to a central Jewish value: honoring our teachers and naming our sources. In the transmission of wisdom and insight we stand on the shoulders of all who taught us, as they stand upon all who taught them. That does not mean that we cannot disagree with our teachers, or that we cannot break new ground or establish fresh interpretations. It means that we always acknowledge that we do not exist in a vacuum, but rather are part of a great chain of transmission, a living legacy of learning. Judaism calls this the “Torah She’be’al Peh”, the Oral Torah, passed from teacher to student across millennia.

After citing his father’s teaching, Rashi then addresses the apparent grammatical impossibility of the first sentence of the Torah. “Breishit Bara Elohim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz” is usually translated as “In the Beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Yet the literal meaning of the Hebrew is “In the beginning of…God created the heavens and the earth.” In the beginning of…what?! Rashi treats every word of Torah as meaningful – every word not only bearing a simple, literal meaning, but every word loaded with potential meanings, symbolic, associative, imaginative and even fanciful.

Observing the grammatical impossibility of Chapter 1, Verse 1, Rashi pointedly comments on this very first phrase of Torah – and by extension signals to us his approach to the entire enterprise of understanding the Torah – by saying: “Ayn hamikrah hazeh omer ela ‘darsheni’” – “This Scripture calls out: ‘Interpret me!’” Rashi then gives not one, but several interpretations, citing numerous earlier rabbinic sources.

The Torah calls out “Interpret me!” This is the venerable Jewish way of studying our sacred texts. Our tradition is determinedly not monolithic. If I were putting out a new edition of Rashi’s commentary, I might title it “Interpret Me! The Jewish Way of Understanding the Torah”.

Rashi’s basic rules for Torah study are clear: honor the commentators who have come before; study the Hebrew with great care; treat every word and every letter as a vessel for significance; assume that there is more than one worthwhile solution; and interpret away! As we embrace this rich Jewish methodology, we become connected to the past, and open to the future, links in the Jewish quest to understand our purpose as human beings and to be partners in maintaining and sustaining God’s glorious creation.

As I initiate what I intend to be my own ongoing weekly Torah commentary, I wish to acknowledge and cite my teachers, including Rashi. Even as I may offer dramatically different interpretations than my ancestors, influenced as I am by the worldview of my generation, I wish to humbly – and proudly – take my place as a link in this ancient chain.

*Rabbi Yitzchak asks: if the Torah is essentially a book of laws, why does it begin with this story of creation? Why not begin with the commandments?