Parshas Berieshis - Simchat Torah (5771)
Rashi (Rabbi Solomon ben Yitzchak, the “Father of Commentators”, a medieval French rabbi famed as the author of the first comprehensive commentary on the Talmud, as well as a comprehensive commentary on the Hebrew Bible, better known by the acronym Rash”i - RAbbi SHlomo Itzhaki), in his very first commentary on the Torah in Genesis 1:1, quotes the following:
“Rabbi Yitzchak said: [G-d] need not have begun the Torah but from “This month shall be for you [the beginning of the months]” (Exodus 12:2), because it is the first commandment which Israel was commanded (for the main purpose of the Torah is its commandments, and although several commandments are found in Genesis, e.g., circumcision and the prohibition of eating the thigh sinew, they could have been included together with the other commandments). What is the reason that it began with the Book of Genesis? It began thus because it wished to convey the message of the verse, “The power of His acts He told to His people, in order to give them the estate of nations” (Psalms 111:6). So that if the nations of the world will say to Israel, ‘You are bandits, for you conquered the lands of the seven nations who inhabited the Land of Canaan,’ [Israel] will say to them, ‘The whole earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed is He. He created it (this we learn from the story of the Creation) and He gave it to the one who is proper in His eyes. By His wish He gave it [the Land of Israel] to them, and by His wish He took it from them and gave it to us (G-d promised the Land of Israel to the Jewish people, the descendants of Abraham Isaac and Jacob, as recorded in the Book of Genesis)’”
Wow! What a powerful statement! What Rashi is telling us, in essence, is that the main purpose for the inclusion of the entire Book of Genesis in the Torah was not to teach us about creation or even about the history of the Jewish people and their origins – since the Torah is essentially a book of laws and not stories – but rather it was meant to clarify and proclaim to all who read it that the Land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people for one reason, and one reason only – because it was promised to Abraham’s descendants by the One Who created it and Who can give it to whomever he wants.
Our claim to the Land of Israel is not because we were there first. In fact, we were not there first. Even the name that our forefather Abraham is referred to in the Bible - Ivri, or “Hebrew”, a word meaning “the other side” - indicates that the first Jew to walk the planet did not even come from the Land of Israel but from eiver hanahar, the other side of the Jordan River.
Nor do we deserve the Land of Israel just because we suffered from countless pogroms and persecution over the centuries and millennia while living in the Diaspora among the nations – although there can be no doubt that the world powers had pity and compassion on the Jewish people after the Holocaust and were more favorably inclined to grant us a Jewish State.
The primary connection and entitlement that we Jews today have to the land of Israel has its roots in the promise that G-d made to Abraham that his descendants shall be given the Land of Israel as an “everlasting possession”, as stated in the Torah (see Genesis 17:8). In effect, the Torah itself is our “deed” to the Land of Israel.
This “politically incorrect” – but historically accurate and Biblically true – statement made by Rashi has broad ramifications for our times. We are living in what many have called the “post-Zionist” era, when the passion and the drive to build the State of Israel that the early immigrants possessed, has largely been replaced with a lack of interest, and even a questioning of our right to “occupy” this land, by their descendants presently living in Israel. Many young Israelis - even those in the army - are disillusioned with the State of Israel today and are finding it hard to justify their right to be in the land – especially with world opinion against them, making them feel like “illegal occupiers” of land that rightfully belongs to the Palestinians. (It is well known that some of the best and most devoted soldiers in the IDF come from the Religious Zionist Hesder program, whose passion is fueled by their belief that the Land of Israel belongs to the Jews as promised in the Torah.)
Most importantly, the political and religious character of the State of Israel greatly depends on the grounds for our being there in the first place. After all, if the Torah, which contains G-d’s promise to Abraham, is our “deed” to the Land of Israel, then we would do well to make sure that the character of the state that we build on that land reflects the values of the Torah.
Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, former Chief Rabbi of Israel, Chairman of Yad Vashem, and the youngest survivor of Buchenwald, said it best when he gave the following speech to the Oxford Chabad Society at St. Anne’s College, on May 7, 2006:
“I was privileged once to meet David Ben Gurion, the architect of the State of Israel. On April 13, 1972, I received a telephone call from Ben Gurion. At the time, he was living in Sdei Boker, the desert kibbutz. He was a great admirer of the Tanach (the Hebrew Bible), and he called to ask some questions regarding two passages in the Torah which he did not understand. He asked if we could meet up to discuss these issues at Sdei Boker, as rheumatism had made it difficult for Ben Gurion to walk. I considered this a great honor indeed. When we met up, we discussed his questions for several hours, but I had one question of my own.
“David”, I asked, “For years I have been telling a story that I had heard about you during the Period of the British Mandate of Palestine. I would like to confirm if this story is true or not”.
“What is the story in question?” asked Ben Gurion.
I proceeded to tell him what I had heard. It happened in 1937, at the time that the Peel Commission was presiding over the British mandate of Palestine, as Israel was then known, trying to decide what to do about the Arab-Jewish conflict. The Peel Committee was the only committee to suggest cancelling the British mandate, the same decision that the UN came to in 1947. At the time of the Peel Commission, Ben Gurion was the head of the Jewish Agency, and was the last witness to appear before the Peel Committee to appeal in favor of a Jewish state. Ben Gurion spent over three hours explaining the linkage between the Jews and the Land of Israel, stating, “This is our home”.
Everybody was impressed by Ben Gurion’s testimony. Everyone, that is, except for Lord Peel. By the way, “Peel” means “Elephant” in Hebrew.
“Mr. Ben Gurion, may I ask you a question?” said Lord Peel.
“Of course you can, that is why I am here”, replied Ben Gurion.
“Where were you born?”
“Plonsk,” came the reply.
“Where is Plonsk?”
A large period of silence came after the reply. Finally, Lord Peel said in the barest whisper, “Very strange indeed. All of the Arab leaders who have appeared before me were born in Palestine. Most of the Jewish leaders who have appeared before me were born in Eastern Europe.”
Lord Peel spoke up, saying “Mr. Ben Gurion, the Arab people have a Kushan entitling them to this land.” A Kushan was an Ottoman land deed. “Do you have a document saying that Palestine belongs to you?”
At that point, Ben Gurion became aware of the Tanach (Hebrew Bible) in his hand that he swore upon whilst taking the oath to be witness to the commission, and he held it up triumphantly exclaiming “Here is your Kushan, here is your document. It is the world’s most highly respected book, and I believe that you British regard it with much respect too. We must have this land.”
Back in 1973, I asked Ben Gurion in his desert home “Is this story really true? Did you hold up a Tanach and say ‘Here is your document?”
Ben Gurion smiled and said “Emet Veyatziv”, it is true and it is certain.
I had another question to ask Ben Gurion. I asked, “Imagine you have a document that entitles you to a land. Then you destroy it. You crumple it up, shred it and tear it. Try and present this document to a committee as proof of entitlement for a piece of land. The committee will not accept it in its torn and tattered condition. But look at the Jewish people. We pick and choose certain laws. We consider some laws archaic. In effect, we are destroying our own document. How can we therefore use it as entitlement to the Land of Israel?”
David Ben Gurion was a very smart man. So smart, in fact, that he refused to answer the question.
It is interesting to hear the Independence speech given by David Ben Gurion on May 14th 1948. In the speech, he uses the word “Jewish” as an adjective no fewer than twenty times. Jewish state, Jewish immigration, Jewish education. However, the word “democracy” was never mentioned once in the speech. Why is this so? The answer is because the very word “Jewish” encompasses all aspects of democracy and more. Democracy, non discrimination and social and family values are implicit in the very word “Jewish”.
Everything following the declaration of independence happened very quickly. A war broke out very shortly after the speech was made, and before anybody was prepared, the Egyptian Air force bombed an area ten minutes from where the declaration of independence was made, and there were 42 casualties. The resulting war lasted for one and a half years. Immigrants who had just survived the camps were called up straight away to fight, and after the war was won there was a huge wave of immigration from the Arabic countries of Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon and many more. The population of Israel shot up from six hundred thousand to over three million. Today, that figure is closer to seven million.
However, during all of this time, not a single person, in the Knesset or otherwise, stopped to think about a very important question. What character was a Jewish State supposed to establish? How did the state express itself with regard to Shabbat and other important Jewish aspects of life?
This question first struck Ben Gurion, now prime minister, shortly after the establishment of the state. On the radio, he told the following story. He visited an army camp during mealtime, and whilst everybody on the camp was busy sitting at tables eating food and engaging in conversation, Ben Gurion noticed a single man standing up with no plates or cutlery, holding a loaf of bread in one hand and a tomato in the other. Ben Gurion approached the man and asked what was wrong. The man replied “The food on this base is not kosher. The meat, of course, is kosher, but the utensils in which everything is cooked are treif. They mix the milk and the meat together in the kitchen. They put everything in the same cooking pot. Therefore I can only eat food that has not been in these pots”.
Ben Gurion immediately realized the problem, and decided that “Even if only one out of a thousand soldiers on a base keeps kosher, then that kitchen must be kept kosher. The reason is since 999 soldiers can eat the kosher food but the one soldier cannot eat the non kosher (he used the word “treif”) food.”
This is the character that the state must possess. We have to ask ourselves, before the establishment of the state, what made us a nation? People had different passports, spoke different languages - hardly anybody spoke Hebrew - so what held the Jews in the
land together as one people? The answer, I hope, is obvious. Chuppah, Brit Milah, Yom Kippur, Pesach… It is all of our laws, traditions and customs. Without all of these, we would not be a nation.”
This Shabbos, Parshas Bereishis, as we read the Torah once again from the beginning, let us take the time to reflect on the timely and timeless words of Rashi in his very first commentary on Genesis – and to realize the great Kushan that is our heritage and that binds us all together, the Holy Torah.