Bereishit – Do Some Things Come First?

Author: Esther Ehrman, Tishrei 5765/Oct 2004

Bereishit bara elohim et ha shamayim ve et ha aretz 'In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth' (Genesis 1,1).

In the Torah world, it is hard to imagine that anything, even the world, preceded the Torah and so the Midrash explains: ein reishit ela torah 'beginning can only mean Torah' (Bereishit Rabba), meaning that with 'reishit', i.e. with Torah, the Almighty created the world. Equating Torah and Bereishit is what we do on Simchat Torah when we follow up the reading of the last section of the Torah immediately with the reading of the opening chapter.

Having settled that point, the Midrash asks about other things that seem to have the privilege of precedence. The Almighty created 'the heaven and the earth'. Heaven, says Beit Shammai came first; it is mentioned first. No, say Beit Hillel, look at the very next chapter: be yom asot H' elohim eretz ve shamayim '.in the day that the Lord made earth and heaven' (ch.2,4), where the earth is mentioned first. Beit Shammai do not give in so easily. What about Abraham, who is always mentioned before Isaac and Jacob? Again there is a ready verse to hand 'Then will I remember my covenant with Jacob and also my covenant with Isaac and also my covenant with Abraham will I remember'(Lev.26, 42). The discussion continues, mentioning that while the name Moses usually precedes that of Aaron his brother, even that is not always the case.

In the last part of this section, the Midrash raises the question of precedence in the command to honour father and mother. Once again, there is a verse to show that the mother is also mentioned first, 'You shall fear every man his mother and his father'. (Lev.19, 3). 'Our sages say', the section ends, that the father does precede the mother, since, in the verse just quoted, 'both the man and his mother have to do honour to the father' - in the command to honour father and mother. The sages have the last word here. If we take their view to reflect the view of their society, we see that they do not reflect the meticulous concern for equality of worth accorded by the Torah.