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Thursday, 9 February 2017

Did we steal Israel?

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 17


The very first Rashi on the Torah is all about the United Nations.

“Rabbi Yitzchak taught: The Torah should have started with, ‘This month is for you,’ which is the first mitzvah with which Israel was commanded.  Why did the Torah open with Bereishis (creation)?  So that when the nations of the world accuse Israel, ‘You are thieves for having conquered the land of the seven nations,’ they may respond, ‘The whole world belongs to the Almighty.  He created it and gave it to whom he favoured.  He willfully gave it to them and he willfully took it from them and gave it to us.”

How did Rashi, living in eleventh-century France know about the anti-Israel bias of the UN in the late-twentieth, early twenty-first centuries?  Was he a prophet?

The Holy One blessed be He gave three individuals a taste of the World to Come.  They are: Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov.  Avraham, of whom it is written, “And Avraham was senior, of advanced years, and Hashem blessed Avraham with everything (bakol).”  Yitzchak, of whom it is written, “I ate of everything (mikol).” Yaakov, of whom it is written, “G-d has been gracious to me and I have everything (kol).”
The yetzer hara (forces of wickedness) had no dominion over three individuals.  They are: Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, of whom it is written “bakol, mikol, kol.”

Rashi lived in an era when economic security for Jews was ephemeral.  While he was blessed with great personal wealth consisting of vineyards and property, as a mediaeval Jew, one never knew when it would all come to an end.  During that period, we were continually exiled from France to England, and from England back to France, over and over again.  And of course, a couple of centuries later, we were exiled from Spain and Portugal.

Why did they exile us?  Primarily because we were financially successful.  Our gentile neighbours saw that success as a drain on their resources.  They accused us of prospering at their expense.  In their minds, we ‘stole’ it from them.  And so they kicked us out and appropriated the wealth.  Needless to say, it didn’t take long before their economies began to falter, and they ‘invited’ us back.  (And we fell for it, time and again . . . simply because we really didn’t have much other choice.)

So Rashi looks around and thinks: Well, they don’t think we belong in France.  They don’t think we belong in England.  In Israel, today, we are a small minority.  Imagine what will happen when the promised day eventually arrives when we return to Israel.  The nations of the world will undoubtedly accuse us of stealing the land from the “indigenous” people!

But here’s the problem.  If they maintain that we don’t belong in France.  And we don’t belong in England.  We don’t belong in Spain.  And we don’t belong in Germany.  And what’s more, we don’t even belong in Israel, where on earth do we belong?!  The answer, in their minds, is that if we Jews believe we’re G-d’s chosen nation, then we probably belong up in Heaven somewhere!

So where do we belong?

Towards the end of bentching (Grace After Meals), we ask the Merciful One to bless all the members of our family, just like Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov were blessed “bakol, mikol, kol” – in everything, from everything, (and with) everything.  What does this strange expression mean?

Rabbi Shmuel Yaffe Ashkenazi explains in the Yefei Toar that there are three levels of ‘everything’ blessing.  The first is a long, healthy life.  That is alluded to in the verse about Avraham.  The second is becoming a vehicle for spirituality, which was experienced by Yitzchak prior to conveying the Divine blessing to his children.  The third is material wealth, which Yaakov demonstrated to his brother that he possessed (Bereishis Rabbah 43:8).

First, we ask Hashem to bless us with long life, because we know that every second on this Earth is precious.  Once we pass from this world, we can no longer face – and be rewarded for overcoming – the challenges of this physical life.  Second, we ask Hashem to bless us with Divine inspiration because we want to maximize our spiritual accomplishments during our lifetimes.  The more we become vehicles for G-dliness, the more we accomplish the transformation of this physical world into a G-dly arena.  And third, we ask Hashem to bless us with material wealth, because our Father in Heaven wants us to have EVERYTHING, all the blessings of heaven and earth!

That was Rivka’s message to Yitzchak when she surreptitiously sent Yaakov in for the blessing.  Yitzchak thought he could bifurcate the blessings between earthly bounty and heavenly bounty, the former for Esav, the latter for Yaakov.  Rivka, however, knew intuitively that nobody’s going to buy into a religion that offers spiritual reward, but physical travail.  Yaakov, the heir to their family values, deserved both the heavenly realm and the earthly realm of reward and prosperity.

That’s Rashi’s point in the very first verse.  Hashem created heavens and earth and He chose to give it to the nation of Israel.  We are a spiritual people with a physical mission.  We are His heavenly ambassadors with a mission to make this world a better place.

And so the entire book of Bereishis (Genesis) is a lead-up to the Exodus from Egypt.  Our first instructions as we become a nation are twofold.  Officially, the first mitzvah is ‘This month is for you’ – it’s the mitzvah of sanctifying the celestial beings, of becoming owners of the heavenly bodies.  We get to decide when each month begins; we determine whether it’s a regular year or leap year.  The order of the universe is not a natural given, we are in control.

But if you look closely at the Torah, the first unofficial mitzvah given to the Israelites is to gather gold, silver, clothing, and jewellery from their Egyptian neighbours.   Hashem tells us from the outset, ‘Don’t think that by becoming a spiritual, holy nation, it means you’ll have to sacrifice Olam Hazeh (this world).  If you commit to Me, you can have it all!’

‘Ultimately, where is our base on Earth?’ asks Rashi.  ‘The Land of Israel.’  Remember when making Aliyah meant material denial, self-sacrifice, and physical hardship?  Even if swamp-draining and sapling-planting might predate most of us, until very recently Aliyah still meant a major cut in salary and lifestyle.  While those days might not yet be completely over, they’re improving rapidly.  Israel today is a start-up nation, boasts extensive gas fields off the coast, and is a world leader in agri-tech and water solutions.  Not to mention being a thriving liberal democratic society with the most moral army in the world. 

In the twenty-first century, Israel is not only the spiritual source of world – with Torah thriving like never before in history – but it’s fast becoming the physical-material source of Hashem’s blessing to the world!  That’s the blessing of “bakol, mikol, kol!”


You can have it all! Spiritual success!  Material prosperity!  Great health!  Powerful, enduring relationships!  May the Almighty bless you, just as he blessed our forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, bakol, mikol, kol, and may your focus always be on the material and spiritual source of His blessing to the world, the miraculous State of Israel!