The famous rabbinic question with which Rashi opens the book of Breishit asks: why didn’t the Torah start with God’s first commandment to the Jewish people? Rabbi Yitzchak’s answer is that the storyline of Breishit provides an answer to those voices which accuse us of being foreign conquerors, by providing a moral justification for our claim to the land. “He has told His people the power of His deeds, to give them an inheritance of nations.”
I imagine anyone who has tried using Genesis to dissuade believers in “Zionism is racism/colonialism/imperialism/apartheid” has quickly discovered that Rabbi Yitzchak’s statement, if it is to be plausible, must be understood as a way to explain ourselves to ourselves, and not as pro-Israel hasbara.
That works reasonably well for the overall storyline of Breishit. But what about the story of the Jewish people’s enslavement prior to their receiving the first mitzvah in chapter 12? What does that come to teach us about our inheritance of the land?
On one level, the story outlines an archetypal pattern that repeats itself cyclically throughout exile, of a period of comfort, followed by mounting fear of the host nation, followed by gradually increasing degrees of oppression. As such, the story resonates with classical Zionist tropes, reminding us of the significance of a physical inheritance for the physical well-being of the Jewish people.
But even more important than the cautionary tale about exile is the cautionary tale about sovereignty, power and fear, and how they can cause a people to forget their ideals and commitments. More than anything, this is the message the Torah drills home as it envisions the society that we will build as the anti-Egypt, dedicated to caring for its most vulnerable citizens- the widow, the orphan, and especially the stranger. Our moral claim to the land is not only about our God-given right to this land. It is, the Torah and the prophets repeat countless times, also conditioned on the fulfillment of our mission, a mission seared into our collective identity by the experiences of these opening chapters of Shemot.
My own little daily 929 insight, in 300 words or so. What’s 929? A near-impossible challenge of consistency. A song of Jewish unity. A beautiful project worth checking out. Learn more at 929.org.il