Rashi on Israel

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

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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.'"

tree in israelBook 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.

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Michael A. Signer

Rabbi Michael A. Signer is a professor in the University of Notre Dame Department of Theology and a senior fellow of the Medieval Institute.