Todd Berman

This Sabbath let’s invite UNESCO to Shul

“And when God started creating Heaven and Earth…” (Genesis 1:1)

Who doesn’t like a good origin story? For sure, we’ve probably seen Bruce Wayne’s parents die a few too many times, watched Krypton blow up more than we want to recall, and everybody knows that Peter Parker gets bit by a spider. Still, I’m a sucker for the genre. But surely, not every work needs to open in this manner. Calculus texts don’t need to include discussions of the origins of mathematics nor Organic Chemistry books need relate to Big Bang nucleosynthesis.  Yet, every year, mutatis mutandis, Shabbat Bereishit comes around and despite the plethora of laws contained within the Torah, we are once again reintroduced to the Creation, Flood, and Patriarch stories.  For next few months, synagogue attendees and those who follow along with the weekly reading, instead of learning particulars of Jewish law, will study the origins of the world and continue week after week with the stirring reruns of the classic Bible stories. And this Shabbat morning, of course, we start it all from day one of creation.

As just about every kid in Jewish day school learns, Rashi questions the need of this particular storyline: “Said Rabbi Isaac: It was not necessary to begin the Torah except from “This month is to you,” (Exod. 12:2) which is the first commandment that the Israelites were commanded, Now for what reason did He commence with “In the beginning?” (Rashi’s commentary to Genesis 1:1.)  Rashi’s answer to why the world needs to review these stories is legend:

Because of [the verse] “The strength of His works He related to His people, to give them the inheritance of the nations” (Ps. 111:6). For if the nations of the world should say to Israel, “You are robbers, for you conquered by force the lands of the seven nations [of Canaan],” they will reply, “The entire earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He; He created it (this we learn from the story of the Creation) and gave it to whomever He deemed proper When He wished, He gave it to them, and when He wished, He took it away from them and gave it to us. (Rashi)

Although other commentators have given their own spin on the necessity of the opening chapters of Genesis, none, I believe, has been as well-known as that of Rashi. Why did Bible open with a universalistic story of Creation, to inform us of an important reality regarding the land of Israel. As Rav Mordechai Breuer points out, Rashi, or Rabbi Isaac who Rashi quotes, began with an incorrect assumption. Rashi assumed, argues Rabbi Breuer, that the Torah is first and foremost a work of Jewish law. Hence, like Calculus or Orgo, the Torah should have opened with necessary and pertinent issues. Even the name “Torah” means instruction usually of a legal nature such as Torat HaOlah (the law of the Olah sacrifice) or Torat HeChatat (the law of the Sin or expiation offering) in Vayikra.

The opening book of the Torah, Genesis, disabused Rashi and other readers of this notion. The Torah is not simply a book of Divine law; it is much greater than that.

Rabbi Breuer continues that according to Rashi’s conclusion that Genesis was necessary to explain the deep connection and even rights Jews have to the land of Israel, the emphasis of the Torah takes on a radically new the direction. The laws, which take up the middle sections of the Torah, are bounded by historical narrative. The focus of which is the giving of the land of Israel to the Jewish people. The Torah opens by discussing the origins of the world, the promises made to the Jewish patriarchs that their descendants will inherit the land, exile, slavery, and redemption, the giving of the Law, and the travel and future promise to enter the land. The laws, according to Rav Breuer, become the mechanism for the Jewish people to maintain their ties to the land. Ultimately, the Torah expresses the desire and future vision of the Jewish people living with God in the land He has chosen. That is the ultimate goal of the entire Torah “to dwell in the house of the Lord…and to visit His Palace” (Ps. 27:4). The ties of the Jewish people to the land of Israel become, therefore, not a side show, but the main event of the entire Divine book(s). These stories make the Promised Land into just that – the land promised by God to the Jewish people.

As powerfully expressed by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto (Ramchal) in the opening pages of his spiritual treatise Mesillat Yesharim, some ideas are so blatant and obvious that people don’t review them and ultimately forget them completely. Therefore, argues Ramchal, certain messages need constant repetition. The deep connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel seems to be one of these.

No doubt, many were dumbfounded by two recent resolutions of The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) ignoring the connection of the Jewish people to the Temple mount and other holy areas in the land of Israel accusing Israel of damaging the area which is holy (only) to Islam. Rashi’s words seem prophetic. The nations will accuse the Jews of stealing their own land. As if the Temples never existed, UNESCO declares the area a Muslim holy site completely ignoring the Jewish connection both past and present.

But forgetting the Jewish connection to parts of the land of Israel seems not to be limited to the United Nations. On college campuses BDS warriors declare the entirety of the land of Israel (“from the river to the sea”) to belong to the Palestinians (“Palestine will be free”) as if there was no historical connection of the Jewish people to their land during the many years of exile. This extends to groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and even Jewish groups in Israel and abroad who call for an immediate end to the Jewish presence in Judea and Samaria, the biblical heartland.

Many will not be moved by the religious or even historical claims dating back to the Bible and continuing through the Muslim conquest and beyond to present day. But for those who recognized these historical and even religious claims, we forget the Jewish connection at our peril.

Whatever the political necessities and no matter what future negotiations hold in store for the Land of Israel, the Jewish people have laid claim to the Land from time immemorial. Some see it as a Divine promise while others will recognize the Jews as the true indigenous population having returned home from the four corners of the world. Even those who support removing Israeli sovereignty from areas held by Jordan until 1967 should recognize that while realpolitik may require such a move, it would be a crisis of Jewish history. Jews who feel that giving up parts of our homeland are necessary should also cry about it.

Omitting the Jewish narrative from discussions of the future of Israel’s borders is tantamount to leaving out the entire book of Genesis from the Hebrew Bible. Perhaps it’s time for UNESCO to go to Hebrew school to learn this week’s Parasha.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.
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