It was a change of a lifetime. Gershon Ber Jacobson, the noted correspondent for the Israeli daily newspaper Yediot Ahronot, had been invited to the White House to meet President Kennedy in 1961. An ardent follower of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Jacobson asked for his advice: “What should I say to the President?”
“Make a copy of the first Rashi in the Torah. Translate it into English, laminate it and present it to the President,” the Rebbe told Jacobson. Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040-1105) is the principle commentator of the Torah; he explores the basic meaning of the text and provides students with an understanding based on thousands of years of scholarship. Most Hebrew editions of the Torah include his commentary.
Rashi gives a surprising analysis of the first verse of Genesis, which states, “In the beginning G-d created the heavens and earth. . . .” Rashi asks, “Why does the Torah begin with the story of the creation of the world?” He goes on to say, “The primary purpose of the Torah is to teach us how to live, it should have started with the first commandment.” Rashi gives an intriguing explanation that rings through the ages: “When the nations of the world say to the Jewish people, ‘you are robbers you have taken the Land of Israel from us,’ you should respond, ‘G-d created the world and gave the land to the Jewish people.’” This was the message the Rebbe wanted the reporter Gershon Ber Jacobson to impart to President Kennedy. The Land of Israel is a Divine gift to the Jewish people.
This is a powerful message for us as Jews today. What binds us to Israel? What stands at the center of our connection to the ancient land? Do we have a right to it because the British issued the Balfour Declaration a century ago, saying that they would help establish homeland for the Jews, or because the United Nations voted in 1947 to establish a modern state?
In 1936, there were terrible Arab riots in what was then Palestine. Britain set up the Peel Commission to explore the question of the future of the territory. When Lord Peel asked David Ben Gurion, an avid secularist, by what right he laid a claim to the then-Palestine, Ben Gurion responded, “Our right in Palestine is not derived from the Mandate and the Balfour Declaration. It is prior to that. . . .The Bible is our Mandate, the Bible which was written by us, in our own language, in Hebrew, in this very country. . . . Our right is as old as the Jewish people.”
When Jews speak with pride, declaring their historical right to the land, their voice is respected. This does not mean that we should treat others who live in Israel with disrespect. Judaism teaches that each human being should be treated with dignity. Yet when the question arises of why the land of Israel is the patrimony of the Jewish people, we should remember the story of how a news reporter gave the President of the United States a copy of Rashi’s commentary on the first verse of the Torah.
Rabbi David Eliezrie is rabbi at Congregation Beth Meir HaCohen/Chabad. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.