Claims to Israel rest on Torah values

By Rabbi Mordecai Miller

“Said Rabbi Yitzchak, ‘The Torah should have opened with the words “This month will be designated for you…” because it’s the first mitzvah that the people of Israel were commanded to perform. So why did (the Torah) start with “In the beginning…”? Because… if the nations of the world would accuse the people of Israel “You are no better than robbers since you conquered the territory belonging to the seven (Canaanite) nations,” they (the people of Israel) could respond to them, “The entire Earth belongs to the Holy One, Blessed is He. He created it and gave it to whomever He felt deserving. According to His will He gave it to them and according to His will He took it from them and gave it to us.'”

This comment covers a good deal of ground.

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1. Rabbi Yitzchak’s initial point deals with assumptions we might make about the nature of the Torah. Is its main purpose to serve as a book of Divine commandments to help us fulfill the will of God? If this were the case, then it would make sense for the Torah to start with the very first mitzvah given the Jewish People as a nation — namely, that the month of Nisan should start the cycle of months of the year.

2. So why does the Torah start with “In the beginning” and go on to tell how God created the world in seven days? This clearly isn’t a mitzvah!

Rabbi Yitzchak tells us that it’s purpose is to give a legitimate response to the people of Israel, should they be accused of “stealing” the territory belonging to the seven Canaanite nations. Such an accusation would strike deep into a point that Torah tries to clarify: “might doesn’t make right.” So what basis does the conquest of the Land of Canaan have in morality?

The answer lies in who can ultimately claim legitimate title to the land. In creating the world, God laid claim to its title.

3. God doesn’t play favorites either. A reason the Torah suggests that God turned over the land to the people of Israel was that the Canaanites were ridden with all kinds of immoral behavior. However, it would be important to point out that the people of Israel would be held to the same standards. When it turned out that they failed, the Israelites were sent into exile. The only difference between the Canaanites and the Israelites was that God would never ultimately abandon the latter because of the tremendous merit of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. That’s the reason their descendants weren’t completely destroyed.

4. How interesting that so many centuries later, the claim to the Land of Israel is still under dispute. While Rashi’s comment doesn’t give us grounds to say that we have an undisputed right at present, it does suggest that the only way for us to maintain our title to the Land of Israel is through our devotion to the values of our Torah both as individuals and as a society.

Rabbi Mordecai Miller of Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel Congregation prepared the commentary on this week’s Torah portion.