Rashi famously begins his commentary to Sefer Bereshit with the words of a midrash:
Rabbi Yitzchak said, “The Torah should have begun with Kiddush Ha-Chodesh (Sanctification of the New Month), which is first mitzvah commanded to B’nei Yisrael/the Children of Israel (and is found in Sefer Shemot/the Book of Exodus). Why did the Torah instead begin with Bereshis (Creation)? Due to the pasuk (verse – Tehillim/Psalms 111:6) that states, ‘The strength of His actions did He relate to His people’, which justifies God giving Eretz Yisrael 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 gave it (Eretz Yisrael) initially to the nations of Canaan and decided to then take it and give it to us.”
The obvious question is how will the Jewish people invoking Bereshit as the basis of our right to Eretz Yisrael 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 Yisrael. What is the midrash 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 accept 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 personal honor and control; deep-seated characteristics of the male and female personality, and of human nature in general, especially pertaining to siblings and their rivalries; the role of the Jew in Galut (Exile) as accused and persecuted, thereby forced to scheme for his survival, as per the prototype of Yaakov Avinu (Jacob, our Patriarch) in Lavan’s house - as well as notions of an all-powerful Being and Force of Creation, of a Higher Morality, and so much more, are universal concepts that the Torah presents in Sefer Bereshit; the world at large has accepted these ideas outright or at least subconsciously.
Among these universal truisms is the divine and historical connection of the Jewish People to Eretz Yisrael. Hence, 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 midrash, it strikes an intuitive chord, as much as the nations will consciously deny and fight it.
There is another perspective to this all. When the Jews lay forth their claim to the Land based on the Torah, it is not for the sake of the nations that they need to do so - for even if the nations deep down accept the words of B’nei Yisrael, fierce denial and refusal will usually be expressed by the nations, until the time of Moshiach, the Messiah.
What is the function of B’nei Yisrael’s assertion of their right to Eretz Yisrael based on the Torah, on the story of Bereshit? The function is to encourage and inspire B’nei Yisrael themselves. We must always know that our rights to the Land are by virtue of God 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 God through the Land.
Therefore, our instinctive and immediate claim to Eretz Yisrael must flow from the words of the Torah, which affirm God’s authority over the world and His unchallenged ability to apportion its lands to whom He sees fit.
This is the deeper and paramount significance of the first words of Rashi in his Torah commentary.
Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer is Chairman of the Rabbinic Circle of the Coalition for Jewish Values, serves on the editorial board of Jewish Action magazine and a staff writer for the Cross-Currents website. He is a member of the RCA and NY Bar, and an account executive at a large Jewish organization based in Manhattan