Rashi on Israel

Rashi's very first comment on the Torah focuses on the Jewish claim to the Land of Israel.

Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac of Troyes, better known as Rashi, was neither a philosopher nor a theologian, but his influence on the way Jews think is enormous. Rashi’s commentary on the Bible is by far the most influential work of its kind, and has virtually defined for centuries the way traditional Jews interpret the Bible. Reprinted with permission from The Land of Israel: Jewish Perspectives, edited by Lawrence A. Hoffman (The University of Notre Dame Press).

In general, medieval Jewish exegesis and polemics attempt to provide a focus for the Land of Israel within the biblical narrative. Much of this exegesis is rooted in the notion that the Land of Israel is the center of the world, and that God has a unique relationship to it. Geographical topoi [motifs] in the Bible which relate to the Land become opportunities to explicate the narrative and to point to future reality marked by restoration. The verac­ity of future hopes rests upon careful reconstruction of the story of the an­cestors of Israel.

Commentary on the Creation Story

The assumption that Scripture itself is the locus where one finds tes­timony to the unique relationship of God and the Jewish people to the Land of Israel is stated most clearly, perhaps, in the introductory comments of Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac of Troyes (Rashi) to his commentary on the book of Genesis. He raises a question based on the midrash Tanhuma about the reason the Pentateuch begins with the narrative of the world’s creation rather than with the first commandment given to Israel, the celebration of the Passover (Exodus 12: 1).

In response he cites Psalm 111:6, “God tells His people the might of His deeds to give them the inheritance of the nations,” and explains:

“For if the nations of the world say to the people of Israel, ‘You are robbers because you stole the land of the seven Canaanite nations,’ They [the Jews] should say to them, ‘The whole earth belongs to the Holy One Blessed Be He. He created it, and He gives it whomever is upright in His eyes. By His will He gave it to them, and by His will He took it from them and gave it to us.'”

Book of Story, Not Just Law

This statement provides a synthesis of the nature of Torah for the Jew­ish people, and of the connections between the Jewish people and its land. It emphasizes the necessity of reading Torah as a “story,” a sequential nar­rative. Torah begins with the creation narrative, thus implying that it is not a book of laws, but a record of God’s beneficence to the people of Israel. In particular, that beneficence is the Land of Israel, given them as an “in­heritance of the nations” (Psalms 111:6). In this way, Psalm 111:6 is said to an­swer a question placed in the mouths of the nations of the world.

Should anyone question the possession or capture of the Land by the Jewish people, the answer is that all the earth is ultimately the possession of God, who distributes it according to the righteousness of each nation. “The mighty acts of God” are performed to give Israel “an inheritance,” their Land. The Jewish reader of this passage would also notice the paronomasia [word play] of the Hebrew word aretz, which means both “earth” and “land,” recognizing full well that ha-aretz–“the land”–can refer in context only to the Land of Israel.

In this way Rashi would join the possession of land (in general) at the discretion of God with the more specific idea that the possession of the Holy Land must itself be by the grace of God and directly dependent upon the righteousness of God’s people.

Covenant Beyond Obedience 

Rashi’s introduction to the Torah reveals a synthesis of the Jewish exe­getical and polemical traditions about the Land of Israel during the medie­val period. The Pentateuch began with the story of creation because, despite the consequence of exile that befalls Israel when it fails to keep the commandments, the covenant between Israel and its God is not exclusively rooted in Israel’s obedience to God through the observance of the law.

Certainly the covenant would never be so dependent upon observance of the law that God’s ultimate promise to Israel would be nullified. Rather, God acts be­neficently to Israel long before commanding any laws at all. The universal­ity of the creation story is refracted into the particular act of the bestowal of a land upon Israel. Israel, behaving righteously, inherits the Land, and the Land rejects all other conquerors, awaiting the return of its true owners, Israel redeemed.

It should be noted that Rashi does not present the negative aspect of Israel’s exile from the Land. For him the Torah is not the narrative of Israel’s debilitating exile but of its proud possession of the Land. As the covenant is eternal, so Israel’s possession of its Land is eternal. God cannot be so ca­pricious as to take back what was graciously bestowed from creation’s very inception!

The First Jewish Lesson

This passage by Rashi became the commentary par excellence for the Jewish people. For Jews reading through Holy Writ, it stood as the very first lesson in a traditional Jewish reading of the Pentateuch. As Rashi’s com­mentary grew in popularity and authority to the point where it was con­flated with the meaning of the text itself, his introductory explanation con­stituted the normative framework for a Jewish interpretation of the Bible.

The exegetical traditions about the Land of Israel during the medieval period follow the contours suggested by Rashi. Wherever possible, the me­dieval interpreters focused the reader’s attention on the restoration of the people to the Land. The biblical message represented more than a glorified past; it was an adumbration [outline] of a more glorious future.

The Christian world, on the other hand, saw the Jewish Diaspora as verification that Israel of the spirit had taken the inheritance of Israel of the flesh. So in their exegetical writings of the Middle Ages, Jews sought out refutations of these claims. The failure of Christians to capture the Land of Israel from the Muslims and the failure of Christianity to convert the Muslims were validations of Jewish claims. Their biblical commentaries promised that even in exile, Jews could be comforted knowing that by holding fast to the religion of their ancestors they would some day return to their Land.

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