The following Midrash appears in Midrash Rabbah (Midrash on the Bible):
Rav Hunah in the name of Rav taught: For the sake of three things the world was created, for the sake of Hallah (the Mitzvah to set a side a portion of the dough), Ma’aser (tithes) and Bikurim (the first fruits of the harvest, to be brought as offerings to the Mikdash), as it is said: “In the beginning God created” – “beginning” (Bereshit) refers to Ma’aser, as it is written, “the first (reshit) of your grain” (Deutoronomy 18:4), and “beginning” refers [also] to Bikurim, as it is written, “the first (reshit) fruits of your land” (Shemot 23:19). (Midrash Bereshit Rabbah (Theodore Albeck), Parsha 1)
Rav Hunah’s exegesis is derived from the similarity between the word “bereshit” (in the beginning) and the word “reshit” which appears in three other passages – in Hallah, Ma’aser and Bikurim. From this similarity, Rav Hunah explicates that the world was created for the sake of these three Mitzvot.
This Midrash is puzzling and calls for deeper exploration. The Ishbitzer Rebbe suggests an interpretation of the Midrash in his work on the Torah, “Mei Hashiloach”. The Rebbe bases his interpretation on a passage from the Talmud, in Masechet (tractate) Sanhedrin, which describes a conversation between Rav Ashi and Menashe, one of the kings of Israel. This conversation takes place within a dream, and in it Menashe complains that Rav Ashi slighted him, and he proves his wisdom:
Menashe appeared to him in his dream. He said: ‘You call me your friend, and the friend of your father? From what place in the bread should one start when cutting it in order to say “Hamotzi” (the blessing over the bread)?’ He answered: ‘I do not know’. He said: ‘You do not know from what place one must start when saying “Hamotzi,” and yet you call me a friend?’ He said: ‘Teach it to me, and tomorrow I will teach it in your name in class’. He said, ‘From the place where the bread is first baked’. (Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin, 102b)
Why must the bread be cut from the place where it was first baked? Menashe king of Israel teaches us that we make a blessing over that which is not in the hands of man. Man cannot decide inadvance which part of the bread will be baked first. It is at this very point that God’s leadership of the world becomes apparent. God decides upon the first point to be baked, and this is therefore the point upon which it is most appropriate to make the blessing. For in this manner, we deepen our awareness of God’s leadership over the world.
The Ishbitzer Rebbe, in Mei Hashiloach, deduces from this idea an interpretation of the Midrash by Rav Hunah. Rav Hunah understood that all those new beginnings – the Hallah, the Ma’aser and the Bikurim – allude to the awareness of God’s rule over His world. Every such beginning, when we understand that it is in God’s hands and not in the hands of man, reminds us of God’s presence in our world.
As we begin the year with Parshat Bereshit, starting the cycle anew, we too should bring into our hearts the awareness that God’s constant, benevolent presence is ever at our side, and never forget that all our power and abilities come from Him.