David Seidenberg
Ecohasid meets Rambam

The land of strangers: Understanding Rashi’s first comment on the Torah

The midrash teaches that the first human/adam was created with soil from the ground / afar min ha’adamah from every direction, meaning from every place, so that no matter where the first human’s progeny wandered, they would still be at home. Wherever a person dies and is buried, their bodies will not be strangers to the soil, and the land will accept them (Tanchuma Pekudei 3).

What then does it mean to look at people who have lived in a place for generations, or even for one generation, and see them as a strangers or aliens who don’t belong?

Though we can apply these questions to refugee issues in the United States and Europe, here I want to focus on Eretz Yisrael, and on Israel and Palestine. For that I will turn to Rashi.

Rashi’s very first comment on bereishit, the first word of the Torah, shows that he was vexed by these questions. He famously quotes a midrashic conundrum: “It wasn’t necessary to begin the Torah except from the verse, ‘This month is for you the head of months, first for you from the months of the year’ (Exodus 12:2)” – because that was when the people as a whole received its first commandment, to sacrifice the paschal lamb, which was the beginning of the actual exodus that formed Israel into a nation.

Rashi, paraphrasing Genesis Rabbah (1:2), then “explains” why we need the story of Creation: If the world’s nations say to Israel, “You are robbers, because you conquered and occupied the lands of the seven nations,” Israel can retort, “All the world belongs to the Holy One, He created her (the land), and He gave her to whomever is upright in His eyes. When He wanted He gave her to you, and when He wanted He took her from you and gave her to us.”

What a strangely polemical way to begin the most important Torah commentary ever written.

Of course, Rashi lived through the first crusade and wrote elegies about the Rhineland massacres, perpetrated by Christian “soldiers” on their way to take the land of Israel away from the Muslims, which initiated Europe’s murderous slouching towards the Shoah. It’s easy to imagine Rashi adding this teaching after finishing the rest of his commentary, as a way of asserting that the whole premise of the Crusades was a lie.

Against the grain of liberal Jewish values, Rashi isn’t worried about how Jews treat strangers, but about whether the Jewish people is seen as a stranger in its own land, the land God gave to us. But this conundrum is only created because the Torah—unlike any other scripture or sacred story I know about—insists on describing the people of Israel as being non-indigenous, not rooted in the land: Abraham came from Mesopotamia; the tribes invaded from Egypt.

It seems impossible to imagine that this is historically true: the calendar, holidays and laws of the Torah are all clearly attuned to the rhythms, ecology and geography of the land of Israel. The ancient Hebrews must be indigenous. Yet the Torah insists otherwise. Why?

A clue may be found in the repeated laws about protecting strangers or foreigners, most especially in the verse: “Like a native from among you, so the stranger who sojourns with you shall be for you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev 19:34). Another clue is God’s assertion in the laws of Shmita and Yovel, the Sabbatical and Jubilee year, that even after the Israelites take possession of the holy land, still “you all are strangers and sojourners with Me / gerim v’toshavim atem imadi” (Lev 25:23).

If one major theme of the Torah is the treatment of the stranger, another is the treatment of the land – and both are grounded in the idea of seeing ourselves a strangers.

It is no happenstance that this is the language Abraham uses to describe himself—ger v’toshav anokhi imkhem—when he negotiates to buy the Cave of Machpelah for Sarah’s burial (Genesis 23:4). We are called to see ourselves as Abraham did, so that we treat immigrants and refugees as Abraham treated strangers, as we would want to be treated when “we” were seeking asylum in Egypt.

The idea that remembering Egypt should spur us on to justice also recurs in so many other verses beyond Lev. 19:34 (Exod. 22:20, Exod. 23:9, Deut. 10:19, Deut. 16:12, Deut. 24:18, Deut. 24:22). That “we” that sees ourselves as coming out of Egypt is a lynchpin of the whole Torah. You won’t treat people like strangers who don’t belong if you recognize that you too are a stranger. Asserting the Jewish people’s indigenousness would not be the best way to entwine and enshrine these values.

Given that the exodus from Egypt is exactly the story Rashi and the midrash suggest should begin the Torah, it’s impossible to imagine Rashi’s first comment was presaging the naïve right-wing bumper sticker that says: “The land of Israel: God’s gift to the Jews.” Rashi certainly realized the sword of his argument would cut both ways: God can also take the land from us and give it to the Christians, or the Muslims, or the Bedouin or the Palestinians, through whatever chain of conquest, dispossession, immigration and emigration unfolds.

Ultimately, the people who get to stay in the land are the “upright,” those who care for it without spilling blood, or stealing land and water, or uprooting olive trees and demolishing villages. That’s why the sanctification of the land achieved through Joshua’s military conquest didn’t last (b.Shevuot 16a). In fact, Chaza”l, the ancient rabbis, insisted that the commandments to wipe out the Canaanite nations through conquest was completely annulled long before they came on the scene.

It’s why the conquest of the Crusades could never represent God’s will for the land. But neither could the current mode of Jewish settlement in the West Bank, or even in the Negev, where the state denies rights to the people there who are not “our own,” making them feel like strangers in the land where they were born.

Crusader Siege of Maarat (Throwing Heads of Muslims Over Ramparts), Source: Wikimedia Commons
Crusader Siege of Maarat (“Throwing the Heads of Muslims Over the Ramparts”), public domain, Source: Wikimedia Commons

What then does it mean for Eretz Yisrael to be the “promised land,” if it’s not “God’s gift” to us? It means that God promises to take the land away from us if we enshrine injustice, if we treat other peoples in the land as strangers, if we treat the land as a commodity to horde. If you think God gave you the land, and no one else, it’s hard to share.

Yet “promised land” also means that God promises to always, eventually, bring us back to the land to try again: “And I will remember…My covenant of Abraham’s…and the land I will remember… And I will remember for them the covenant of the first ones, when I took them from the land of Egypt, before the eyes of the nations.” (Lev 26:44-45)

If the covenant is true, then the rights that come with being “indigenous” are not simply a function of where one’s ancestors were born, but of how well one is attuned to the land and to justice. That would apply whether your ancestors left the land 2,000 years ago, or came to it in the last few centuries.

And the covenant needs to be true, because if it’s not true, then the state of Israel, for all its good and necessity for us, really would be a colonialist enterprise – even if the history we lived through from Rashi to the Shoah seemed to give the Jews no choice but to make that state a reality.

Rashi quotes the midrash that the soil used to make the adam came from everywhere (Genesis 2:7). But he also quotes a second midrash, that the soil came from the place where the altar would stand in the Beit Hamikdash (the Temple), the place of atonement, so that, “halavai,” humanity could stand, could last. So that we would all belong to Jerusalem, and to the holy land – all of us, strangers and sojourners.

Download a resource with every single verse that mentions the stranger in Torah here.

This article is an expanded version of a davar Torah written for Truah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.)

About the Author
Rabbi David Mevorach Seidenberg is the creator of, author of Kabbalah and Ecology (Cambridge U. Press, 2015), and a scholar of Jewish thought. David is also the Shmita scholar-in-residence at Abundance Farm in Northampton MA. He teaches around the world and also leads astronomy programs. As a liturgist, David is well-known for pieces like the prayer for voting and an acclaimed English translation of Eikhah ("Laments"). David also teaches nigunim and is a composer of Jewish music and an avid dancer.
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