Rashi on Israel

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

Print this page Print this page

Should anyone question the possession or capture of the Land by the Jewish people, the answer is that all the earth is ultimately the possession of God, who distributes it according to the righteousness of each nation. "The mighty acts of God" are performed to give Israel "an inheritance," their Land. The Jewish reader of this passage would also notice the paronomasia [word play] of the Hebrew word aretz, which means both "earth" and "land," recognizing full well that ha-aretz--"the land"--can refer in context only to the Land of Israel.

In this way Rashi would join the possession of land (in general) at the discretion of God with the more specific idea that the possession of the Holy Land must itself be by the grace of God and directly dependent upon the righteousness of God's people.

Covenant Beyond Obedience 

Rashi's introduction to the Torah reveals a synthesis of the Jewish exe­getical and polemical traditions about the Land of Israel during the medie­val period. The Pentateuch began with the story of creation because, despite the consequence of exile that befalls Israel when it fails to keep the commandments, the covenant between Israel and its God is not exclusively rooted in Israel's obedience to God through the observance of the law.

Certainly the covenant would never be so dependent upon observance of the law that God's ultimate promise to Israel would be nullified. Rather, God acts be­neficently to Israel long before commanding any laws at all. The universal­ity of the creation story is refracted into the particular act of the bestowal of a land upon Israel. Israel, behaving righteously, inherits the Land, and the Land rejects all other conquerors, awaiting the return of its true owners, Israel redeemed.

It should be noted that Rashi does not present the negative aspect of Israel's exile from the Land. For him the Torah is not the narrative of Israel's debilitating exile but of its proud possession of the Land. As the covenant is eternal, so Israel's possession of its Land is eternal. God cannot be so ca­pricious as to take back what was graciously bestowed from creation's very inception!

The First Jewish Lesson

This passage by Rashi became the commentary par excellence for the Jewish people. For Jews reading through Holy Writ, it stood as the very first lesson in a traditional Jewish reading of the Pentateuch. As Rashi's com­mentary grew in popularity and authority to the point where it was con­flated with the meaning of the text itself, his introductory explanation con­stituted the normative framework for a Jewish interpretation of the Bible.

The exegetical traditions about the Land of Israel during the medieval period follow the contours suggested by Rashi. Wherever possible, the me­dieval interpreters focused the reader's attention on the restoration of the people to the Land. The biblical message represented more than a glorified past; it was an adumbration [outline] of a more glorious future.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

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.