Sefer Bereishit, The Torah, & The Land Of Israel — Understanding An Important Rashi

DISCLAIMER: I’d like to start out by saying that I do believe that the Jewish People were given the Land of Israel, as per God’s Word, as stated in the Torah. This essay is not about politics, but about a text that has been distorted for political purposes.

Jacques Derrida said that all interpretation is a political action. This has been debated, but there are texts for which this is certainly true. Interpreting a constitution, or any governmental document, is certainly a political action. Interpreting primary religious texts probably is too. One text that would fall into this category is the first comment by R. Shlomo Yitzhaki (רש״י) on the Torah. It likely was not political a few centuries ago, but the last 70 years of political development in the Middle East have put it in center stage in more than a few political discussions, and thus its interpretation is an action of political importance.

This Rashi is generally used to argue that the Land of Israel, the ownership of which is currently hotly contested on the world stage, was given to the Nation of Israel by the Creator, and thus all a Jew has to do when challenged regarding the right of the Jewish People to the land is to point to the first line of the Torah — the one that says “In the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth” — and that’s the end of the discussion. Rashi is understood as saying that the Jewish people’s right to the Land comes from God’s position as Creator of said land, and that because it was given to the Jews by its Creator, the political discussion is irrelevant. This is, at the very least, a mistaken interpretation of Rashi, and at worst, a maliciously false one. The purpose of this essay is to examine Rashi’s comment step by step and understand its proper religious meaning.

Rashi on Genesis 1:1:

בראשית: אמר רבי יצחק לא היה צריך להתחיל [את] התורה אלא (שמות יב ב) מהחודש הזה לכם, שהיא מצוה ראשונה שנצטוו [בה] ישראל. ומה טעם פתח בבראשית? משום (תהלים קיא ו) כח מעשיו הגיד לעמו לתת להם נחלת גוים, שאם יאמרו אומות העולם לישראל לסטים אתם, שכבשתם ארצות שבעה גוים, הם אומרים להם כל הארץ של הקב"ה היא, הוא בראה ונתנה לאשר ישר בעיניו, ברצונו נתנה להם וברצונו נטלה מהם ונתנה לנו:

In the beginning: Rabbi Yitzhak said: It was not necessary to begin the Torah except from “This month is to you,” (Shemot 12:2) which is the first commandment that Israel was commanded. Now for what reason did He commence with “In the beginning?” Because “The strength of His works He declared to His people, to give them the inheritance of the nations” (Tehillim 111:6). For if the nations of the world should say to Israel, “You are robbers, for you conquered the lands of the seven nations,” they will reply, “The entire earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He; He created it, and gave it to whomever He deemed proper. When He wished He gave it to them and, when He wished, He took it away from them and gave it to us.

Now to break it down.

In the beginning: Rabbi Yitzhak said: It was not necessary to begin the Torah except from “This month is to you,” (Shemot 12:2) which is the first commandment that Israel was commanded.

Rashi’s question, which originates in his midrashic sources1, is about the fact that the Torah does not begin with the first Law ever received by the Israelites. This is based on the assumption that the Torah is essentially a book of laws, and so the fact that it includes non-legal material — not to mention that it starts with such non-legal material — is bizarre and demands explanation.

The specific law that Rashi references is the Sanctification of the New Moon, the official declaration of the beginning of the new month by the Sanhedrin, the High Court. This command is given to the Israelites as they were being taken out of Egypt, before the revelation at Sinai. This question is often critiqued based on the fact that this was not the first God-given law in the Torah, as the Patriarchs received as well the laws of circumcision (Bereishit 17) and Gid HaNasheh (Bereishit 32). However, Rashi seems to have anticipated this and added a line not found in his midrashic sources, “which is the first commandment that Israel was commanded.” While Circumcision and Gid HaNasheh are indeed Torah laws that are incumbent on all of Israel, the actual commands themselves were not given to the Nation of Israel, but to the individual patriarchs. The first command given to the Nation of Israel as an entity was the Sanctification of the New Moon, and therefore if the Torah is the legal code of the Nation of Israel it should logically have started from there2.

Now for what reason did He commence with “In the beginning?” Because “The strength of His works He declared to His people, to give them the inheritance of the nations” (Tehillim 111:6).

Now Rashi brings an answer to this question in the form of a quotation from Tehillim (111:6). According to this, the laws of the Torah are preceded by Bereishit in order to show Israel God’s power in creation, which is somehow related to having given them the land of Canaan, a land which had once belonged to the Seven Nations of Canaan. Rashi explains:

For if the nations of the world should say to Israel, “You are robbers, for you conquered the lands of the seven nations,” they will reply, “The entire earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He; He created it, and gave it to whomever He deemed proper.

Rashi explains that the value of God “declaring his works” to the People of Israel is not just theoretical, it actually has a practical application. If the nations of the world come to Israel to claim that the people of Israel stole the land of Israel, then Israel can reply by pointing to the beginning of the Torah, where it says that God created the land, by virtue of which He can give it to whomever He so desires.

It is from here that the political interpretation of this comment by Rashi flows. Based on this, some people have used Rashi as a source for treating the Torah as a deed to the land of Israel. However, this interpretation suffers from two obvious flaws. Firstly, in order for Rashi’s comment to make sense as an answer to the question of “Why didn't the Torah start with the first law?” it has to suffice as an explanation for not just the first chapter of Sefer Bereishit, but for all of it (and more). This simplistic interpretation of “God made it, so He can give it to whomever He wants” fails to meet this criteria. More critically, this interpretation fails to fit with an attentive reading of the last line of Rashi’s comment:

When He wished He gave it to them and, when He wished, He took it away from them and gave it to us.

This comment would, at first glance, seem to add nothing new to, nor deviate in any way from, the previous interpretation. However, it adds a very important, if subtle, idea to the picture of God as Creator and Grantor of Land. It adds the idea that God gave the land to Israel exactly the same way He gave it to the nations of Canaan; in other words, contingent upon His Will. At first it was His Will that it belong to the nations of Canaan, and so they had ownership of it; then they ceased to deserve the land and so He took it away from them and gave it to the descendants of Avraham. This is attested to by the Torah itself. In the Covenant Between The Parts (Bereishit 15), God tells Avraham that his descendants will inherit the land, but only after first being oppressed in a foreign land:

Genesis 15:16:

וְדוֹר רְבִיעִי יָשׁוּבוּ הֵנָּה כִּי לֹא־שָׁלֵם עֲון הָאֱמֹרִי עַד־הֵנָּה׃

And the fourth generation shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.

While the Amorites were not yet so sinful and depraved as to lose them their ownership of the land, that day was coming, and on that day Avraham’s descendants would return to inherit their birthright.

This, however, adds a new wrinkle to the picture. If ownership of the land is not something intrinsic to a people — if it is dependent upon God’s Will and the merit of the people — then the Nation of Israel can lose the land just like the nations of Canaan did. This too is attested to in the Torah itself.

Leviticus 18:3, 24-28:

כְּמַעֲשֵׂה אֶרֶץ־מִצְרַיִם אֲשֶׁר יְשַׁבְתֶּם־בָּהּ לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ וּכְמַעֲשֵׂה אֶרֶץ־כְּנַעַן אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי מֵבִיא אֶתְכֶם שָׁמָּה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ וּבְחֻקֹּתֵיהֶם לֹא תֵלֵכוּ… אַל־תִּטַּמְּאוּ בְּכָל־אֵלֶּה כִּי בְכָל־אֵלֶּה נִטְמְאוּ הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר־אֲנִי מְשַׁלֵּחַ מִפְּנֵיכֶם׃ וַתִּטְמָא הָאָרֶץ וָאֶפְקֹד עֲונה עָלֶיהָ וַתָּקִא הָאָרֶץ אֶת־יֹשְׁבֶיהָ׃ וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אַתֶּם אֶת־חֻקֹּתַי וְאֶת־מִשְׁפָּטַי וְלֹא תַעֲשׂוּ מִכֹּל הַתּוֹעֵבֹת הָאֵלֶּה הָאֶזְרָח וְהַגֵּר הַגָּר בְּתוֹכְכֶם׃ כִּי אֶת־כָּל־הַתּוֹעֵבֹת הָאֵל עָשׂוּ אַנְשֵׁי־הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר לִפְנֵיכֶם וַתִּטְמָא הָאָרֶץ׃ וְלֹא־תָקִיא הָאָרֶץ אֶתְכֶם בְּטַמַּאֲכֶם אֹתָהּ כַּאֲשֶׁר קָאָה אֶת־הַגּוֹי אֲשֶׁר לִפְנֵיכֶם׃

You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws... Do not defile yourselves in any of those ways, for it is by such that the nations that I am casting out before you defiled themselves. Thus the land became defiled; and I called it to account for its iniquity and the land spewed out its inhabitants. But you must keep My laws and My rules, and you must not do any of those abhorrent things, neither the citizen nor the stranger who resides among you; for all those abhorrent things were done by the people who were in the land before you, and the land became defiled. So let not the land spew you out for defiling it, as it spewed out the nation that came before you.

Thus, the final line of Rashi’s comment, “when He wished, He took it away from them and gave it to us,” tells us that God gave us the land, but it also tells us that this gift is contingent on good behavior.

This understanding of Rashi’s comment allows us also to understand it as a proper answer to the question of why the Torah does not start with the first law that the Nation of Israel is given. The idea that, because God created the land He can give it to whomever He wants, only allows us to understand why the Torah has the story of Creation before the laws. It does not allow us to explain the stories of Adam and Hava, the Flood, the Tower of Bavel, or the many stories of the Patriarchs. However, if we understand Rashi as saying that God created the land, and that He gives it to whomever He feels is most deserving, than it makes perfect sense that all of these stories would precede the laws of the Torah. The basic assumption of Rashi’s question is that the Torah is a book of laws. These stories make it clear that it is a book of laws that God cares about people following, and the fulfillment of which God enforces. This enforcement takes the form of rewarding people with land and punishing them with exile (among other things). This is seen in the stories of Sefer Bereishit, wherein Avraham is rewarded with the land and the Canaanites’ exile is foretold, and in the various exhortations that Moshe gives to the people (Vayikra 27 and Devarim 26-28).

The idea communicated by Rashi’s first comment on the Torah is incredibly important, but in the religious and theological sphere, not the political one3. Rashi is giving us a way of understanding the Torah, telling us that as a book of laws it also comes along with stories demonstrating how important it is that we follow the laws. He is not saying that God’s status as Creator makes our ownership of the Land of Israel absolute. In fact, he would seem to be saying the opposite. The land is not ours, but God’s4, and He can give it to whomever He sees as most deserving.

This is an incredibly important idea on the theoretical level, but it is difficult to translate to practical application as we cannot really know who is more deserving in the eyes of God5. However, if one were to try and apply this idea to the practical realm, it would lead to two conclusions. First, if God gives the land to whichever nation He feels is most deserving, and if God is actively involved in history, then that would seem to suggest that whoever currently has the land is whoever God wants to have it, whoever He feels is most deserving. This is obviously politically and practically problematic, as it would seem to suggest that the status quo is what God wants, and no future course of action can be decided based on that. Secondly, this idea would seem to say that if any one group wants to own the land, then at the end of the day what they should be focusing on is not possessing the land, but deserving it in the eyes of God.

1. Rashi appears to have based his comment off both Midrash Tanhuma Bereishit 11 (which appears with slight variations in Yalkut Shimoni Bo 187) and Bereishit Rabba 1:2 (my thanks to Ira Tick for directing me to this source). Fascinatingly, the first midrash asks a question which it answers by quoting 111:6, and the second midrash opens with the same quote based upon which it asks a question. Rashi joins them around this quote, moving from one question into the next.

2. It’s also possible to answer that the narrative context is not really necessary for those laws and that they could simply have been placed amongst the other laws in the law code, but the way Rashi adds that extra line makes it seem like that’s not how he would answer.

3. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that one of Rashi’smidrashic sources really did mean to be political. The midrashic from which Rashi adapts the argument in the second half of his comment, Bereshit Rabbah 1:2, lacks Rashi’s question about why all of Sefer Bereishit and a quarter of Sefer Shemot came before the first law of the Torah, and thus is could be read to be just about the land. However, even in that context it makes a different point about the Jews’ right to the land in relation to that of the seven Canaanite nations. That midrash puts a strong emphasis on the fact that just as the Israelites took the land from the nations of Canaan, so too the nations of Canaan had taken it from someone else. Thus, themidrash creates a picture wherein anyone who took the land from someone else probably shouldn’t be complaining about losing the land. However, none of this has anything to do with Rashi’s comment, which lacks the line about the seven nations stealing the land and has the question about the purpose of the first section of the Torah.

4. For more on this, see Sefer Vayikra 25.

5. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuva, 3:2.

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