- Rabbi Avraham Gordimer
Parshas Bereshis - Making Sense of the First Rashi
Rashi famously begins his commentary to Sefer Bereshis with the words of a medrash:
Rabbi Yitzchak said, “The Torah should have begun with Kiddush Ha-Chodesh (Sanctification of the New Month), which is the first mitzvah commanded to B’nei Yisroel (and is found in Sefer Shemos). Why did the Torah instead begin with Bereshis (Creation)? Due to the pasuk (verse – Tehillim 111:6) that states, ‘The strength of His actions did He relate to His people, to give them the inheritance of nations’, which justifies Hashem giving Eretz Yisroel to the Jewish People. For should the nations of the world accuse the Jews of being thieves by conquering and possessing the Canaanite lands, the Jews can reply that the entire world belongs to Ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu (the Holy One, blessed is He), Who created it gave it to whom He saw fit. He willingly gave it (Eretz Yisroel) to the nations of Canaan and willingly took it from them and gave it to us.”
The obvious question is how will B’nei Yisroel invoking Bereshis as the basis of our right to Eretz Yisroel convince the nations that we are not thieves regarding the Land? The nations of the world do not accept the Torah and will surely reject our use of it as proof for our rights to the Eretz Yisroel. What is the medrash quoted by Rashi actually telling us?
I believe that there are two answers, which form a unified idea.
Although the nations of the world do not accept the Torah, at least not as their final authority, the Torah is the source of profound universal and eternal truths which people do indeed accept, at least on a subconscious level, despite their denial thereof. The unparalleled and unique primacy of man as the most advanced creature in the biosphere; people’s almost uncontrollable inclination to break rules and violate their dearest values in the face of carnal temptation, as well as for money, personal honor and control; deep-seated characteristics of the male and female personalities, and of human nature in general, especially pertaining to siblings and their rivalries; the role of the Jew in Golus (Exile) as accused and persecuted, thereby forced to scheme for his survival, as per the prototype of Yaakov Avinu in Lavan’s house - as well as paramount notions of an all-powerful Being and Force of Creation, of a higher morality, of the prohibitions of murder, theft, sexual deviance, and so much more - are universal concepts that the Torah introduces in Sefer Bereshis. The world at large has accepted these ideas outright or at least subconsciously, and they have become the bedrock of human existence.
Among these universal truisms is the divine and historical connection of the Jewish People to Eretz Yisroel. Although this connection might be robustly denied by the nations of the world, in their innermost minds and souls does it resonate, and when the Jews make their claim to the Land as articulated by the medrash, it strikes an intuitive chord, as much as the nations will consciously deny and fight it.
There is another perspective to this all. When B’nei Yisroel lay forth their claim to Eretz Yisroel based on the Torah, it is not for the sake of the nations that B'nei Yisroel need to do so - for even if the nations deep down accept the words of B’nei Yisroel, fierce denial and refusal will usually be expressed by the nations, until the time of Moshiach. What is the function of B’nei Yisroel’s assertion of their right to Eretz Yisroel based on the Torah, on the story of Bereshis? The function is to encourage and inspire B’nei Yisroel themselves. We must always know that our rights to Eretz Yisroel are by virtue of Hashem creating and gifting the Land to us; once we overlook this and resort solely to pragmatic arguments, as powerful and true as they often are, we strip away notions of sanctity and of our relationship with Hashem through the Land. Therefore, our instinctive and immediate claim to Eretz Yisroel must flow from the words of the Torah, which affirm Hashem’s authority over the world and His unchallenged ability to apportion its lands to whomever He sees fit.
This is the deeper and cardinal significance of the first words of Rashi in his Torah commentary.