By Rabbi Avraham
Fischer. A publication of the Orthodox Union in cooperation with the Seymour
J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center
October 13, 2001
In the beginning, G-d created the heavens and the earth
Generations of Jews have been raised to study the Torah with Rashi's indispensable commentary. Many of his comments have become proverbial, as young students memorize his language.
Rashi's ideas express the fundamentals of the Torah value-system.
Rashi's opening commentary on the Torah is famous:
Said Rabbi Yitzchak: G-d need not have begun the Torah but from
"This month shall be for you the first of the months" (Shemot 12:2), which is the first commandment that Israel were commanded. And, what is the reason that it opened with
"In the beginning"? Because "The power of His acts did He tell His people, to give them the inheritance of
nations" (Tehillim 111:6). For, if the nations of the world will say to Israel, "You are thieves, because you conquered the lands of seven nations," they (Israel) will say to them, "All the earth belongs to the Holy One, Blessed be He. He created it and gave it to the one who was proper 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."
We are struck by the boldness of Rashi's first observation, which he proposes, based on the
Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni Bo 187; Tanchuma Yashan Bereishit
11). Is Rashi actually suggesting that the book of Bereishit
is unnecessary? As the
Ramban points out, the creation of the world is essential to Torah faith, which opposes the stance, taken by many philosophic systems, that the universe is eternal. Since the universe and all it contains is the product of
Hashem's will, then:
1. As Creator, Hashem controls all the forces of nature, so that all the miracles recorded in the
Tanach are possible; and
2. As Hashem's creations, we are morally bound to obey Him.
Why then are these concepts insufficient to justify Bereishit?
R. Yehudah Loew ben Betzalel, known as the
Maharal of Prague (c. 1525-1609), in his commentary on Rashi, Gur Aryeh, explains
Rashi's position. Rashi does not question the inclusion of the book of
Bereishit in the Tanach; as a book of principles of faith and historical lessons, it is vital. He questions, however, its inclusion in the
Torah. Remember, the word Torah derives from Y-R-H (vrh), meaning "instruction," thus characterizing the part of the
Tanach known as Torah as the source of the
mitzvot. (While there are a few mitzvot
[Rambam counts three] in Bereishit, these could have easily been mentioned later on.) Thus,
Rashi's question is: Why is the book of Bereishit, as well as the first eleven chapters of
Shemot, incorporated into the Torah, the book of mitzvot?
If this is Rashi's question, then his answer is most surprising, because, instead of discussing the
mitzvot, he argues that the creation of the world justifies Hashem's awarding the land of Israel to the Jewish people.
The Maharal responds that the land of Israel is central to the mitzvot
of the Torah. Bereishit and the beginning of Shemot demonstrate that the land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel by right, and not by theft. The Jewish people's rightful connection to the land of Israel and the
mitzvot they are commanded to observe are interdependent.
What the Maharal says has two components:
First, that the majority of the mitzvot
depend directly on the land of Israel. Of course, this is true of those agricultural
mitzvot that can be fulfilled only in Eretz Israel, such as separating part of the produce for terumah (a small portion given to the
Kohanim) and ma'aserot (tithes, given to the Levi'im and the poor), and
Shemittah (the seventh year, when the land lies fallow).
Moreover, many other mitzvot need the land of Israel as a prerequisite. The
Beit Hamikdash can be built only in Israel; therefore, all
mitzvot which derive from the Temple, including its construction, the appointment of
Kohanim and Levi'im and the offering of sacrifices, require the land. The functioning of the
Sanhedrin and of the monarchy, which account for many mitzvot, also can occur only in Eretz Israel.
Most significant in this connection is the Sanhedrin's fixing of the calendar, "the first commandment that Israel was commanded," in
Rashi's words. Even now, our fixed calendar, based on calculations, derives its legitimacy from the Jews' connection to the land of Israel, as the
Rambam writes in his Sefer HaMitzvot (Positive Commandment 153):
Let us suppose, for example, that there would be no Jews living in the land of Israel - G-d forbid that He should do such a thing, for He has promised not to destroy the remnant of the nation completely. . . . Our calculations would not help us at all. . . . For out of Tzion the Torah will go forth (Yesha'yah 2:3).
Thus, all the mitzvot of the festivals derive, ultimately, from the land of Israel.
Without Eretz Israel, the Torah would indeed be sparse.
Second, as the Ramban says (on Bereishit 26:5 and elsewhere), all the
mitzvot of the Torah are relevant primarily in the land of Israel, and we are commanded to observe them in exile only so they will remain familiar upon our return. The
mitzvot are "the laws of the G-d of the land" (Melachim II 17:26); Israel is where the mitzvot are meant to be. "Only in the Holy Land," said
Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook (1865-1935), "can the spirit of our people develop and become a light for the world."
Of course, there is no guarantee that the nations of the world will accept Rashi's argument that "by His will He took it from them and gave it to us." But - especially in these difficult times -
we should be certain of the Jewish people's legitimate right to the land of Israel, for that is the beginning of the Torah.