On a recent morning, we arrived a few minutes early to my 2-year-old daughter’s pre-school, and I explained to her that she couldn’t go into the classroom just yet.
“Why, Mommy?” she asked. “Your teachers are cleaning up and getting the class ready for you,” I replied. “Why?” “Because they want the class to be ready for you to have fun and play.” “Why, Mommy?” “Because they love to play with you.” “Why?” “Because they love you.” “Why?”
Finally, I ran out of explanations, and just hugged her in exasperation.
This week’s Torah portion, Bereishit— the Hebrew Bible’s first parsha — 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, explores the question of why the Torah begins with Genesis — given that the first commandment is not found until Exodus 12:1, where God explains how to set a monthly calendar.
Rashi says that 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 you read the Torah with the question in mind “What should I do?” you might as well begin in Exodus; but if you’re wondering: “Why do I exist?” then you need to begin in Genesis.
Bereishit articulates the purpose of human life, showing how God created humans and placed them in the garden “to work it and to keep it.”
In our busy lives, we often get caught up in the “whats” of life. As we check off 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 that 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 toward it can we attain fulfillment through life’s ups and downs.
With Genesis, the cycle of the Torah reading commences anew, and we begin again. And in this New Year, one spiritual lesson we can learn from our toddlers is to never stop asking “Why?”
Rabbi Ilana Grinblat teaches rabbinic literature at the American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their two young children.