Breishit – Israel

The very first commentary of Rashi on the Torah (on Breishit 1:1) deals with a very contemporary issue – ownership of the land of Israel.  Rashi’s commentary demonstrates conclusively that the land of Israel belongs exclusively in the hands of the Jews.

Rashi quotes from the Midrash, saying, “If the nations of the world come to you, saying, ‘You are robbers, you have stolen the land of Israel from the seven Canaanite nations,’ you should tell them that the entire land belongs to God, and He is the One who created it and gave it to whom He saw fit.  It was His will to give it to them, and it was His will to take it from them and give it to us.”

There are several questions here: 1) The Land originally came into Jewish ownership when the entire world was divided among the three sons of Noach.  At that time, the land of Israel was granted to Shem, who was the ancestor of the Jewish people.  So, why does Rashi ask his question as if the original owners were the seven Canaanite nations (who indeed were in the process of conquering the land as Abraham entered it in parshat Lech Lecha, as Rashi explains there)?  2)  Since when does conquering a land constitute “robbery”?  It may or may not be “moral,” depending upon the circumstances, but in the context of history at the given time, nowhere do we find that conquest is considered to be theft of land.

In answer: The nations of the world did not mean to accuse the Jews of “robbing” the land in the conventional sense.  They knew that ownership and control of various lands shifts and changes from time to time, as the balance of power shifts in the region.  However, they accused the Jews of robbery because they observed that once the Jews conquered the land after leaving Egypt, the non-Jews were never able to re-conquer it.  As we see throughout history, no empire and no nation has ever been able to make Israel “their own.”  Empires come, empires go, as in the Roman, the Ottoman, and the British empires, for example, but no nation and no empire could “tame” the nation of Israel and make it into their own – only the Jews could do that.  In its root and essence, the reason for that is that the Jews transformed the land of Israel.  When they entered the land with Joshua after years in the desert, they raised the level of holiness of the land so that it could never again accept non-Jewish governance.  And that was the claim of the Jews – “You have not only conquered the land of Israel.  You have changed it fundamentally and made it impossible for us to ever re-conquer it.  That is robbery.”

To which the Jews answer (in Rashi’s explanation):  “The land belongs to God, and He gives it to whom He wants.  He gave it to the seven Canaanite nations and then to us.”  However why does the explanation mention the seven Canaanite nations and not the rightful Jewish owners, from the family of Shem who preceded them?  The answer is because Rashi only wanted to mention the Jewish control of Israel that established ownership – not mere residence.  And such ownership, that transformed the nature of the land, began with the conquest of Joshua, not with Shem.  It was the Jewish conquest, and the command of God to Joshua which forever changed the nature of the land so that only Jews could master the land and live in it properly.

The final question, though, is why was it necessary to first place the land of Israel in the hands of the seven Canaanite nations and only afterward to allow the Jews to conquer it?  The answer is that the Jews needed to put effort into conquering it and driving out the previous inhabitants in order to value the land properly.  If they had taken possession by merely entering the land, as the original descendents of Shem had done, they would not have valued and appreciated the land, but as soon as they had to exert their own labor and effort, they could feel and appreciate the fact that God had placed a beautiful and productive land into their possession.

From Likutei Sichot of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Vol. 5, page 1.  For a more detailed and lengthy version, go to www.jerusalemconnection.org/weekly/w_Bereishis_5770.php

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