Genesis: The Creation Account and the Right of the Jewish People to the Land of Israel

“In the beginning G-d created the heavens and the earth.” (Beresheit 1:1)

The Torah begins with an account of the creation of the heavens and the earth. Rashi asks an important question. The Torah is a work of law. It presents a system of six hundred thirteen mitzvot. It would seem appropriate for the Torah to concentrate on the objective of teaching us the commandments. Why does the Torah begin with an account of creation? Rashi provides a response from the Sage Rav Yitzchak. He explains that Hashem promised the Land of Israel to Bnai Yisrael. However, the Jewish people would not occupy an empty region. They would dispossess other nations. The Torah teaches justice. How can we justify the seizure of the Land of Israel from these nations? The account of creation provides the response. Hashem created the universe. Therefore, He has the right to apportion the earth to various nations. Also, He has the authority to command the dispossession of these nations. We did not take possession of the Land of Israel on our own authority. We were commanded by Hashem to possess the Land. Because it is His creation, He has the right and authority to apportion the Land of Israel to the Jewish people.

Rashi’s answer is difficult to understand. To whom is Rav Yitzchak’s response directed? Certainly, Rav Yitzchak did not expect the nations dispossessed by the Bnai Yisrael to be so impressed by this argument that they would meekly abandon their homelands! These nations were idol worshippers. They did not accept the authenticity of the Revelation and the Torah. They would quickly dismiss any assertion that the Creator had promised their ancestral homes to the Jewish people. They would never acknowledge that Hashem – the true owner – had confiscated their land from them.

Alternatively, if Rav Yitzchak is directed his comments to the other nations of the world that would witness Bnai Yisrael’s conquest of Cana’an, then his argument has proven completely ineffective. The nations of the world have repeatedly contested the right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel. Even in our own day, despite the United Nation’s creation of Jewish homeland in the Land of Israel, the State of Israel is arguably the most politically beleaguered, and derided nation in the world. Israel receives more criticism for its measured responses to ongoing terror attacks than Sudan receives for sponsoring the massacre of its own citizens. And although some nations are willing to acknowledge the legitimacy of the State of Israel, barely any nation are Israel’s allies or supporters. Many of these nations that condemn Israel and question our right to the Land of Israel are familiar with the Torah, its account of creation, and its record of Hashem’s promises to the Jewish people. Yet, these nations do not recognize the Jewish people’s Divine right to the Land!

Israel’s former Chief Rabbi Rav Yisrael Meir Lau explains that we must carefully study Rav Yitzchak’s comments in order to answer this question. Rav Yitzchak supports his views with a verse. This verse from Tehilim – Psalms – states that Hashem revealed the power of His works to His nation in order to give to them an inheritance of the nations. It is obvious from Rav Yitzchak’s comments that he understands this verse to mean that Hashem included in the Torah the account of creation in order to facilitate Bnai Yisrael’s possession of the Land of Israel. In other words, the account of creation provides a legal basis and ethical justification for our claim to the Land. However, Rav Lau suggests that a more careful consideration of Rav Yitzchak’s passage is required if we are to fully understand his position. The passage states that Hashem revealed the story of creation to His nation in order to bolster its claim to the Land. But if the purpose of the creation account is to provide a response to the protests of the nations of the world, then Hashem should have directed the message of His revelation to these nations not to the Jewish people. Apparently, in order Bnai Yisrael needed to receive the Torah and its account of creation in order to prepare the Jewish people for the challenge of conquering the Land, possessing it, and responding to inevitable criticism. Rav Yitzchak is not suggesting the nations of the world will be convinced of the Torah’s argument. Rav Yitzchak does not maintain that the message is addressed to these nations. Instead, the Torah is speaking to Bnai Yisrael!

According to Rav Yitzchak, Hashem recognized that the morality of the Jewish people would be challenged by the nations. He also realized that Bnai Yisrael would be sensitive to this reproach. After all, we are a moral people. Ethical values and moral conduct are fundamental elements of the Jewish spiritual identity. We cannot disregard or ignore challenges to our ethics of the conduct and actions. Therefore, we need to know that, despite all accusations, we have a Divine right to the Land of Israel. For this reason, the Torah teaches us the basis of our claim.

In our time, when blessed with possession of the Land of Israel, we can appreciate the wisdom of Rav Yitzchak’s lesson. The world does not recognize our right to the Land of Israel. We must work to overcome this obstacle. We must also strive to live in peace in the Land. This may require accommodation and compromise. To succeed, we must be steadfast and confident in our right to the Land. We cannot meet and overcome the overwhelming opposition with which we are constantly confronted if we ourselves are uncertain of our rights. We will never succeed in retaining the Land; we will not have the commitment to make the physical, and emotional sacrifices, if we are not certain of our own unassailable right to the Land. We need to know that the Creator promised us the Land of Israel. No other nation’s occupation of the Land supersedes this Divine right.

The Meaning of Hashem’s Spirit Hovering over the Waters

“And the earth was without form and in confusion with darkness on the face of the depths. And the spirit of the Lord hovered on the waters’ surface.” (Beresheit 1:2)

The Torah describes the spirit of Hashem hovering over the primordial waters. This is clearly an allegory. However, its meaning is not easily grasped. The meaning of this pasuk can best be understood in conjunction with the previous pasuk. The Torah begins with the statement that Hashem created the heavens and earth. The terms heavens and earth are proceeded with the article et. This article generally implies some inclusion. Our Sages explain that, in this case, the term et is intended to include all derivatives. In other words, the pasuk should be understood as stating that creation began with the forming of the heavens and the earth and all of their derivatives. The derivatives are the stars, plants, and other elements that came forth on the subsequent days.

Now this seems very confusing. The first pasuk asserts that the heavens and earth with all of their elements were formed on the first day. The subsequent pesukim assert that these various elements emerged during the full course of the six days of creation. Our pasuk resolves this difficulty.

The initial creation contained all that emerged on the subsequent days. However, these elements existed only in potential. This is the meaning of the earth’s formless and confused form. The darkness also represents this concept. In darkness, individual forms cannot be discerned. These terms describe the initial creation. The various elements had not yet emerged into their actual form. The Divine influence was required in order to transform the potential to actual.

Based on this interpretation of creation, Rabaynu Avraham ben HaRambam explains the “hovering” mentioned in the pasuk. The term used for hovering is associated with the bird hovering over its nest. Why is this term used to describe the Divine influence? A bird hovers over its nest in order to protect and nurture its eggs. The eggs contain a living entity – in potential. Through the efforts of the mother, hovering over the eggs, the potential of the eggs emerges in the form of offspring. In a similar manner, the earth included its eventual elements in potential. G-d’s “hovering” represents His influence in converting potential to actual.

It is interesting to note the correspondence between this understanding of creation and the modern scientific view. Science maintains that the building blocks for all that now exists were formed during the initial creation. Over time, the universe we now see eventually emerged. This occurred through the organization of these primitive elements. However, science is faced with the challenge of explaining the emergence of design and organization from chaos. The Chumash provides the resolution of this riddle. G-d’s influence caused the normal pattern of the physical universe to be reversed and organization emerged from chaos.