"At first the Almighty created the heavens and the earth."
One would expect that the opening words of the Torah would express its
overall theme: recounting G-d's commandments to the Jewish People. It is
therefore somewhat surprising that it starts with the Creation narrative.
The first commandment - that the month of Nisan shall be the first in the
counting of the months - only appears much later, in the book of Shemoth.1
Before the Torah can relate the commandments, it first must deal with a
fundamental issue. Theft is considered to be a heinous transgression, and
if people steal, it is as if they have uprooted the entire Torah.2 Forty
years after receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai, the Jewish People would
capture the land of Israel from the Canaanites. Although taking possession
of territory during time of war is not technically considered stealing, it
certainly does not seem to be compatible with the Torah's high standards of
integrity.3 How would they be able to justify such actions?
The reason that the Torah starts with the story of Creation is to dispel
this claim. G-d is the Creator of the World, and as such, can apportion the
land to whomever He sees fit. Since the Jewish conquest of the land of
Israel was by Divine command, and not by choice, there was not even the
slightest trace of theft involved in capturing it from the Canaanites.
Consequently, their actions were in total conformance with the Torah's high
standards of honest behavior.
On the other hand, the Canaanites were the ones guilty of underhanded
conduct. The Canaanites were a nation steeped in theft and falsehood.4
Since the land of Israel is a place of sublime holiness, it can not
withstand even the slightest level of national corruption within its
borders. It is for this reason that they were expelled.5 The Jewish people,
on the other hand, were given the land of Israel because they were
righteous in G-d's eyes.6
1. Shemoth 12:1.
2. Rebenu Bachayah-Kad HaKemach, Gezel.
3. Choshen Mishpat 266:1.
4. Pesachim 113b; Bereshith Rabbah 59:9.
5. Commentary of the Malbim on Tehillim 111:7.
6. This essay is based on the question and commentary of Rashi on Bereshith 1:1.