Tora Thoughts: Parashat Bo 5778
Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky
The Jewish People and the Land of Israel
In chapter 12 of the Book of Exodus, which appears in this week’s parasha, we find the statement of a group of mitzvot (precepts) for the first time in the Torah. These mitzvot are mainly ritual, and they have to do with the calendar and mostly with the festival of Passover.
For many sages, the mitzvot are the core of the Torah and the Torah itself was given to the people of Israel so they know how to fulfill their obligations. However, it is striking that the Book of Genesis lacks mitzvot (with only three exceptions), as do the first 11 chapters of the Book of Exodus. We could ask, why is it that the Torah had to start with the stories of Genesis, and not with the mitzvot themselves?
This exact question is actually the beginning of Rashi’s commentary to the Torah. His answer? “Because of [the verse], “The strength of His works He related to His people, to give them the inheritance of the nations” (Psalms 111:6). For if the nations of the world should say to Israel, “You are robbers, for you conquered by force the lands of the seven nations [of Canaan],” they will reply, “The entire earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He; He created it (this we learn from the story of the Creation) and gave it to whomever He deemed proper When He wished, He gave it to them, and when He wished, He took it away from them and gave it to us.”
In other words, Rashi is explaining here that the reason the Torah begins with the Book of Genesis, and not with the mitzvot of Exodus chapter 12, is because God wanted to make it clear that he gave the land of Israel to the Jewish people. That is why, according to Rashi, the Torah tells about the creation of the world, the first generations of men, the patriarchs and matriarchs, etc. This way, the nations of the world couldn’t say to us “you are robbers, the land of Israel does not belong to you!”
You might think Rashi’s argument works well only for religious people, those who accept that the religious stories of the Torah have concrete implications for our times. However, Rashi’s argument goes much beyond the religious aspect. If you think about it, Rashi is declaring here that the relationship between the people of Israel and the land of Israel dates from the times of the Hebrew Bible, more than three thousand years ago. Our ancestors lived and developed our culture and values in the land of Israel. There is no doubt that the land of Israel was part of Jewish history from its beginnings.
It is not a surprise that Israel’s Declaration of Independence opens with a similar argument regarding the ancient and close relationship between the Jewish people and the land of Israel. It reads, “The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.”
Even when in our times there are still nations and groups around the world that (incredibly) deny the relationship between the Jewish people and the land of Israel, it is clear that it is impossible to separate the land of Israel from the people of Israel, the Jewish people. This relationship gives the Jewish people a “natural and historic right” to live as a sovereign people in the land of Israel, as the Declaration of Independence stated.
Rashi was not a Zionist leader; he lived in France some 800 years before the Zionist movement was founded. However, with his first commentary to the Torah, he described one of the most powerful Zionist arguments: The Jewish people was born and shaped its values and identity in the land of Israel!