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Warriors, tricksters, and Jews

21 October 2003

Rashi’s commentary on the Chumash begins with a very odd dialogue.

Rabbi Yitzchak said: The Torah didn’t have to begin with anything but “This month shall be for you…” [the commandment for Rosh Chodesh, over in Exodus], because that was the first commandment that Israel was bound by. Why does it open with bereshit?… Because if the nations of the world say to Israel, “You are thieves, because you conquered the lands of the seven nations,” [Israel] would say to them, “All the world belongs to the Blessed Holy One. He created it and gave it to whoever is worthy in His eyes. By His free will he gave it to them [the seven nations], and by His free will he took it from them and gave it to us.”

What is the point of this conversation? It can’t be an argument over our moral claim to the Land of Israel. First, Rabbi Yitzchak couldn’t have expected the other nations to say, “well, if their holy book says that God gave them the land, it’s OK for them to have it.” (In our own day, that kind of argument hasn’t persuaded many Arabs, has it?) Second, as Rabbi Yeshiahu Leibowitz ztz”l pointed out, if we accept that God took the land from the Caananites and gave it to us, we also have to accept that He took it from us and gave it to the Romans, and so on … so we have no moral claim against other nations that are currently occupying parts of the land.

However, if we look at Rabbi Yitzchak’s dialogue in the context of the Roman occupation of Israel, I think we can find a better interpretation for it. These “nations of the world” are not talking about our land, but about our character.

They are saying: “Why are you making such a fuss about how the Romans took your land from you, destroyed your Temple, and killed so many of your people? Your ancestors took the same land from the Canaanites, destroyed their temples, and killed many of their people. If you think the Romans are thieves, your only real complaint is that they are more effective thieves than yourselves.”

We cannot refute such an accusation by telling other people about our laws. We can, however, refute it by telling our stories—the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, which do more to shape our attitudes than any legal code.

The basic psychology of the thief is, “whatever I can get my hands on, through any means, is mine.” If our ancestors were a nation of thieves, the heroes of their stories would be powerful warriors and ingenious tricksters. But the Torah has no such heroes. Avram played a decisive role in a war among Canaanite city-states, but when the king of Sodom offered him a share of the loot, he refused (Genesis 14:22). Jacob, with his stratagems against Esau and Lavan, is the closest thing the Chumash has to a trickster figure, but his life story is one tragedy after another. Instead of warriors and tricksters, we tell stories of one God, who has given free will to human beings, but who, from the first moment of creation, demonstrates absolute control over the physical universe.

This line of argument only holds, of course, if the stories in the Chumash do shape our attitudes. If the biblical narrative shows characters striving for one moral standard, but our behavior in everyday life shows us striving for a completely different one, we can no longer take advantage of R. Yitzchak’s argument. If we praise the same kinds of rogues that our enemies praise, the only difference being the targets of their crimes, then we shouldn’t wait for the nations of the world to accuse us of anything. We should ask ourselves: why are we mourning for the land that a more effective thief captured from us?