On the Torah’s first verse, Rashi makes the following comment: “Rabbi Yitzhak said: ‘The Torah should have started with ‘this month will be for you the first of the months,’ because this was the first mitzvah commanded to Israel.” In essence Rabbi Yitzchak seems to be stating that the Torah should not have begun with the creation story, but with the story of the Jewish people as they received their first mitzvah and, in so doing, “officially” became a nation. Since the purpose of the Torah is to give instruction (the word “Torah” stems from the Hebrew root meaning “to instruct”), Rabbi Yitzchak is proposing that it should have started with the first mitzvah given to the Jewish people and not the account of creation. Rashi explains that the Torah did in fact begin with the creation account in order to teach the nations of the world that God has the right to give the Land of Israel to whatever nation he wishes. The same God who created heaven and earth decided to take the Land of Israel from its former inhabitants and give it to the Jewish people in perpetuity. Thus the Torah ultimately begins with the account of creation so that no one can claim that the children of Israel stole the Land.
Rashi’s explanation solves the apparent dichotomy between the Torah’s beginning with the universal creation story and continuing with the particular story of the Jewish people. Furthermore, in light of the Talmudic opinion that the world was not actually created until Rosh Chodesh Nisan, both the universal act of creation and the particular birth of the Jewish people occurred on the very same day. This confluence profoundly alludes to a very deep truth: Israel’s birth as a nation is intrinsically connected to the creation of the world. This understanding is explicitly voiced by the Midrash which reports that when God “thought” to create the world “the thought of Israel arose first” (Bereishit Rabbah 1:4).
This correspondence between creation and Israel’s birth and redemption is also unveiled in other ways by the mystical tradition. Israel’s slavery in Egypt (a county whose name in Hebrew connotes a sense of narrowness or constriction) is analogous to the tzimtzum preceding creation, while the exodus corresponds to the primordial ray of light piercing the void (see “The Small Alef in Vayikra” above). Israel’s redemption begins on Rosh Chodesh Nisan and finds its ultimate expression on Shavuot with the Giving of the Torah and the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are themselves intrinsically linked to the ten utterances of creation, thus an even deeper fundamental connection between “the day of the ten crowns” – the day that God invites Moses to enter the Tabernacle and gives Israel its first mitzvah – and creation is manifest.
The alef, written especially small in the word “vayikra” in traditional Torah scrolls, also connects creation and Israel’s birth, as mentioned in the first section of Vayikra. However, it furthermore alludes to the fact that Moses, who originally felt inadequate to fulfill the mission of redeeming Israel, was truly humble, so much so that the Torah testifies that Moses was “the most humble person on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3). According to the Midrash, when God told Moses to write the word “vayikra,” Moses objected to God couching his invitation in endearing language and asked that the word be written without an alef, so that it implied that God only by happenstance invited Moses. God told him that this was impossible as the heathen prophet Balaam would later be addressed in the Torah in that manner. A compromise of sorts was reached and God allowed Moses to write the word with a small alef, to illustrate his humbleness (Tosafot Harosh).
In some deeper sense, the small alef also alludes to God’s humility; for when God invited Moses to enter the Tabernacle, he could not because God’s glory filled the entire structure. God, as it were, humbly contracted His infinite presence – alluded to by the small alef – to allow Moses to enter. This contraction on God’s part to permit Moses to enter the Tabernacle mirrors God’s initial act of tzimtzum which created space for finite reality to come into existence. For this reason the Talmud states: “In every place you find God’s greatness there you will see His humility” (Megillah 31a).The paradox of the small alef, as discussed throughout this portion, is in fact related to all of the mitzvot, each of which allows us to experience God’s infiniteness within finite time and space. It is as if every mitzvah contains a contraction of God’s infinite essence into a time and space bound action. One who performs a mitzvah with a pure heart and proper intent thus connects not only to God but to the very purpose of creation.