Israel, the People, and the Land - Rashi - Elie Wiesel

Rashi - Elie Wiesel (2009)

Chapter 3. Israel, the People, and the Land

Rashi believes, following all the Midrashic literature, that the people of Israel live and act at the center of the history of men and of nations. A feeling of superiority? No, of singularity.

Why does the city of Hebron hold a special place in the biblical geography? Its name is Kiryat Arba, the city of the four. Four couples have their graves there: Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah, in other words the fathers and mothers of humanity.

God gave the prophets to Israel alone. This was Moses’s wish. He requested it of the Lord. Who granted his wish? Balaam? Balaam, says Rashi, was a visionary, not a prophet. “The Shekhinah depends on the prophets only thanks to Israel.” Why did the angel take a live coal and burn the lips of the great prophet Isaiah? Because he said too many unkind things about his people.

✵ ✵ ✵

Why the choice of Israel? Is it because of the alliance with Abraham and God’s promise to him, to him and his descendants? Is it because of his faithfulness even during his trials? Is it because of the fact that the Lord offered the Torah to all the nations of the earth (including the children of Ishmael and Esau), but they all turned it down, except Israel? Rashi considers all these possibilities and actually includes them all.

God loves his people, says Rashi, citing, as always, Talmudic sources. His biblical commentaries, especially the Song of Songs, are bristling with this conviction, as are his commentaries on the Talmud.

God’s true suffering? It comes from seeing Israel and the Shekhinah in exile, which is the worst of trials. Though suffering is the consequence of sins committed against Him, He loves Israel in spite of everything. The God of Abraham vowed to never abandon his descendants; he vowed never to substitute Israel for another people, for the people of Israel are never entirely guilty even in their worst sins.


During the episode of the Golden Calf, the text says: “He (Aaron) received them (the golden earrings) at their hands, and … made it a molten calf: and they said: These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” Why “thy gods” and not “our gods”? Rashi quotes the Midrash: we can deduce from this that a mixed multitude had left Egypt and gathered against Aaron. It is these people (and not Israel) who fashioned the golden calf and incited Israel to follow it.

In general, Rashi did everything he could to defend his people.

“God comes from the Sinai”: it is like a fiancé who goes to meet his chosen woman.

Israel is wedded to the Shekhinah. If anyone goes against Israel, it is as if he were going against the Holy One, Blessed be He.

Grossman stresses this point in his aforementioned book. Contrary to what the first Christians and some of their relatives claimed, the God of Israel did not change people and He never will: the people of Israel remain the trueIsrael for all time.

Naturally, Rashi talks a lot about the land of Israel, which has a special place in the eyes of God: the commandments fulfilled there have a greater significance than if they are fulfilled elsewhere. Rashi goes so far as to insinuate that it is a sin for a Jew to live far from Israel. “The land of Israel cannot tolerate the presence of those who violate the Law of the Torah.”

In the passage cited at the beginning of the Tanach, in which he explains why the Bible begins with the creation of the earth and not with the laws, he proclaims unambiguously the right of the people of Israel to the land of Israel. And he repeats this in other works, in various ways and contexts, as when he writes about the hope of redemption and waiting for the Messiah.


Echoing the Talmud, Rashi, in his commentaries, celebrates the virtues of peace, a Jewish and human ideal that applies to the individual as well as to collective groups, both Jewish and non-Jewish.

What is peace? It is charity and compassion among men. Rashi says this in a Talmudic commentary.

The Flood was the result of the quarrels that dominated the generation of that period, says Rashi. And it shows the greatness of peace. Had the people aspired to peace, they would have been saved.

When the people of Israel are united and in peace, says Rashi, the Name of God is praised on high.

He goes much further in citing a Talmudic legend: great is the value of peace, for even if the people of Israel worship idols, as long as they maintain peace in their ranks, Satan will refrain from intervening.

In one responsum, he says:

Value peace…. Peace will be useful to you in saving you from the one who is persecuting you. Satan will no longer reign over you. Our Sages have already asserted it: great is peace, for it was entrusted to the Righteous and not to the impious. May He whose Name and blessing are Peace, gratify us with peace.


In glorifying a thirst for study of the Torah, Rashi comments on the verse “In loving the Lord” as follows: “Don’t say, I’ll study the Law in order to become rich, to be dignified as Teacher, to receive rewards; rather in all your actions, let yourself be guided only by love of the Torah.”

In interpreting the book of Job, Rashi states, “The Torah is maintained thanks to the efforts expended in learning it.”

Elsewhere he remarks: “True, it is difficult to abandon the Torah, but it is still better to be attached to it.”

“And you will teach your children” refers to your pupils. The Teacher must regard them as his own children, just as, for them, he is their father.

(In the Talmud the law on ransoms is meaningful: if I have the choice of paying a ransom for my father or my teacher, the teacher takes precedence.)

Also: “It is with high spirits, goodwill, and enthusiasm that we must study the Torah.”

And this: it is incumbent on a student to respect his Teacher. To avoid embarrassing him, the student should withhold questions that the Teacher might not be able to answer, and then seek a new Teacher.


When Rashi recalls Moses’s remarkable fate, he often refers to his great compassion for his brothers burdened and op pressed in Egypt.

“He saw them suffer and wept.” And further on: “And he (Moses) saw them as they suffered,” Rashi adds, “and his heart became heavy.” For Rashi, the grandeur of the Teacher-Prophet lies in this ability to suffer with the victims.

True, Moses could not endure the sight of his suffering brothers. Because they were Jewish, and hence his brothers? No, because they were suffering.

The Pharaoh increased pressure on his Jewish slaves: he deprived them of the materials needed to build the pyramids and yet demanded a greater output. “Then the officers of the Children of Israel came and cried unto Pharaoh, saying, Wherefore dealest thou thus with thy servants?”

Rashi’s surprising commentary: because the officers showed such compassion for their brothers, they were later rewarded by becoming members of the first Sanhedrin and were given some of Moses’s prophetic spirit.

Here again, it is in Rashi’s assertion of his people’s distinctive characteristics that his universal reach can be found. One should read his Talmudic commentaries on the creation of the first man: why was he alone? As a way of telling us, for all time and for all places, that we have one common grandfather. But Rashi doesn’t mention this. Because the ethical conclusion is obvious? I will follow the example of Rashi, who admits on occasion (nearly a hundred times, in different instances) that he doesn’t know.


The Talmud combines justice and charity. Let us see what Rashi says about it:

Shimon the Righteous says: the world rests on the three following things: the Torah, service to God, and deeds of loving-kindness.

Commentary: deeds of loving-kindness can be extended to the wealthy as well as to the poor, and to the dead as well as to the living; by giving money but also through actions—(but this is not justice), contrary to tzedakah, or almsgiving, which is an act of justice.

Rabbi Akiba says, “‘And thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself is a great precept of the Torah.” Rashi: this law applies to all men, not just to Jews.


Toward the end of his life Moses addresses the people and sums up their common experiences: exciting moments and other less inspired ones. He also speaks of himself: “How can I myself alone bear your load, and your burden and your strife?”

Rashi: “This tells us that there were nonbelievers. When Moses went out early, they said: why is Amram’s son going out so early? Perhaps he isn’t happy at home? When he went out late, they said: why is Amram’s son late? It may be that he is spending time devising bad advice for us and nursing bad thoughts about us.”

(Elsewhere the Midrash tells us that Moses’s situation in the camp was so unhealthy that husbands suspected him of having illicit relations with their wives.)

The eternal problem of leaders: even the peerless Moses is not above suspicion.

The Torah says: “Do not learn the abominations of the other nations.”

Rashi: but understand these practices and guard against them.

After the dark episode of the Golden Calf, God says to Moses: “Go, get thee down; for thy people, which thou broughtest out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves.”

Rashi, to protect the people, puts the blame on the erev rav, the others, who joined Moses in order to leave the land of slavery. “Thy people have corrupted themselves” means: God is not speaking of the people but of a people: the others whom you converted on your own without consulting me, saying to yourself, it’s good that they’re in the Shekhinah, and now they have corrupted themselves and corrupted others.

Even the greatest leader needs God’s words to inspire his own.


Recognized as a quasi-ultimate authority, Rashi received many queries from people near and far, from disciples and peers, dealing with individual and collective problems. Hence the weight and range of his answers (over four hundred, though several may be falsely attributed to him). His opening remarks are usually personal, inquiring after the health of his correspondents and their families. He often uses the expression “in my humble opinion” or “as I was told from on high.” This might not, to modern ears, sound like modesty, but it in fact presents him as nothing but a conduit for divine insight. His genuine humility never fails to inform everything he writes.

The questions—a wide spectrum—come to him from in dividuals, community leaders, and rabbis, living both close and far away. In some instances, says Rashi, before making a decision that will affect all its members, the community should gather in a plenary session, in absolute secrecy, in a cave. He cosigned a decision, at least once, with one Zerach ben Abraham. Rashi rarely focuses his attention on money matters. But he is attentive to the problems of individuals. A woman to whom a countess gives the order of following her on horseback asks Rashi what to do if this falls on the day of the Fast of Esther: can she put off fasting to the next day, in other words, to the day of Purim? No, says Rashi, she cannot.

The range of his answers includes problems dealing with prayer, holidays, mourning, divorce, marriage, circumcision, and the biblical and Talmudic texts.

What concerns him most is the fate of the community, tradition, ritual, the Laws, their implications and applications. Respect for his Teachers (particularly Rabbi Yaakov ben Yakar) and ancestors, the Kadmonim, was a determining factor for him when he ruled on the subject of the Sabbath, or the kashrut of meat or wine; he usually adopts a moderate attitude. For him, the Law isn’t impersonal and shouldn’t be. It involves human beings and therefore the human level should always be taken into account.

From time to time, in a difficult situation, he queried one of his teachers. Sometimes he wrote to Mainz or Worms to request clarifications of particular biblical or Talmudic interpretations based on their ancient manuscripts.

The following text, copied by Rashi himself, hardly exemplary, deals with rulings intended for his own community:

We the residents of Troyes and of the surrounding communities have ordered by oath, excommunication and strict ordinance, to all the men and women who live here, as follows:

No person can free himself of the public yoke, either today or tomorrow, with the help of the count or his representatives, who make Jews leave and separate them from the assembly of Israel. If it turns out he has not paid the tax with his brothers, we order that he will pay the same amount as each of them and that his tax will not be reduced. If he must pay the count and the latter has separated him from his brothers, from that day on he will be counted among them, and each one will pay based on his capital, based on what we the residents of the city decided and such as it has been since its inception.

The ancients who came before us passed down to us the following rules: each person will pay according to his fortune, not counting his utensils, his houses, his vineyards, his fields. As for the money of the Christians (lent to the Christians) with which he earns his keep, he will pay only on the capital. However, if he received a deposit from his fellow Jew, he will pay based on the value of half the deposit for which he has the legal responsibility. If he has silver objects, gold objects, women’s jewels or rings, he will pay according to their value. If a Jew is in possession of a loan for which he is entirely responsible, such as a charitable gift that was charity for one year before becoming a loan, he will pay based on the whole amount, but during the first year.

We have also heard that such was the custom of the ancients: in cases where a city resident took money out of the city, he would have to pay based on the whole amount. However, if he has come to live here, but has not yet arranged to bring over his money, he does not have to pay until he has brought it over and started trading with it. If he has already brought over his money, but it has stayed on deposit without being used, he will pay only once he starts using it.

In cases where residents from here have made a gift to their sons and their daughters and taken it out of the city, for as long as the sons will live in the city, or if they leave it temporarily and their father intends to make them return, they will participate in the public expense with that money.

In cases where one of them received books as a security for a free loan given to his brother, he will pay based on the value of the books. (Responsum no. 248)

Rashi’s concern for the individual Jew is naturally matched by his concept of what makes a community vibrant and enduring, particularly in exile: the idea of remaining attached to the Law of Moses and its ancient interpreters. Their words reverberate in his. Their decisions on an immense variety of topics and situations transcend frontiers and centuries. But the most tragic case he deals with is the fate of the converted. And there we arrive at the most painful subject as far as the Jewish people in the Rhineland are concerned: the Crusades.

Liturgical Poems

Grossman and others ascribe seven liturgical poems to Rashi. Truthfully we can say with very little hesitation that they don’t really reflect Rashi’s greatness. His greatness is not as a poet. Other poets of his time are more admirable. But his poems must be studied so we can better value him, and even love him.

They all describe the trials Israel is going through: the torn Torah scrolls, the students and their teachers slaughtered in a bloodbath, the ransacked synagogues: on reading them one’s heart is overcome with anguish and inexpressible grief.

Was this his personal reaction to the bitter ordeal of the first Crusade?

We sense this too when we read his introduction—the only introduction he ever wrote—to the Song of Songs, which Rashi believed, according to tradition, was written by King Solomon. The great scholar Dov Rappel stresses its historical, philosophical aspect. For Yehuda Rosenthal, due to its sensitivity and brilliance, it presents a spellbinding historical allegory. For Rashi the Song was written thanks to prophetic gifts.

At first glance, it is an essentially prophetic love story between the God of Israel and the people of Israel from the Exodus out of Egypt to the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. And Rashi describes this with melancholy and hope, the one as emotional, deep, and inevitable as the other.

Let us read the text:

King Solomon had foreseen, with the help of the Holy Spirit, that it was to be Israel’s destiny to go from exile to exile, from disaster to disaster, and to nostalgically bemoan the time when she was God’s chosen lover. She will say: “I shall return to my first husband (God) for it was better with me than now” (Hosea 2:7). The Children of Israel will remember His kindness and also their transgressions against Him. And they will remember the kindness He promised them at the end of time.

Often the prophets compare the relations between God and Israel to those existing between an angry husband and the sinful wife who betrayed him. Solomon composed the Song of Songs using that very allegory. It is a fascinating dialogue between the husband (God) who loves and continues to love his repudiated wife, and the wife, really the widow of a living husband, who waits for her husband and seeks to get close to him once again: she recalls the love of her youthful years while recognizing her misdeed.

God too is afflicted in their affliction (Isaiah 63:9), and He remembers her youthful grace, her beauty, and the endowments for which He so loved her in the past. He lets her know that she has remained in His heart and that He will find her again, for she is still His wife and He her husband.

Rashi’s commentary also includes advice on how to live in exile without capitulating: by studying in the synagogues and erecting faith as a great wall; and in the worst cases, through martyrdom. As Solomon says of the dove, Rashi says: “The dove becomes attached to his loved one. And when his throat is cut, he does not flutter and wriggle but cranes his neck.” And he continues: “this virtue of self-sacrifice can only astonish the other nations of the world, and lead them all to ask: in what way is your God different from the others that you are ready to be burned and crucified for Him?”

The Song of Songs, therefore, is a story written for present and future exiles, but also a moving prayer in their memory to bring them closer to Redemption.