The Moral Imperative of “The Strength of His Works”
by Rabbi Jeffrey Saks
Rabbi Jeffrey Saks is the founding director of ATID and its WebYeshiva.org program, and the editor of the journal Tradition. He learned in Yeshivat Hamivtar (1988-89) and subsequently served as its director (1994-96).
Rashi opens his monumental commentary on the Torah with the midrashic observation of Rabbi Yitzhak, that the first 61 chapters of the Torah, until the beginning of halakhic material (in Exodus 12), are potentially superfluous. The reason we open with the tale of Creation is on account of the verse, “The strength of His works He related to His people, to give them the inheritance of the nations” (Psalms 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 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.”
Most of us recall this most well-known comment of Rashi from our first encounter with Biblical commentary; many may have even learned it by heart – whether as a schoolchild or later in life. It is often marshalled as Zionism’s ur-text – a candid and forceful declaration of the claims of the Jewish people to Eretz Yisrael.
In a shiur in 1988, very shortly after Yeshivat Hamivtar moved into its new home in the Efrat shopping center, Rabbi Brovender explored this Rashi through the prism of its prooftext in Psalm 111. I no longer remember his conclusion (he does not remember it either), but I turned to that mizmor in the hope that something in the effort to retrace his steps have either awoken latent memories or at least produced new insights.
If taken as a whole, the short, acrostic mizmor is a psalm of thanksgiving to God, whose actions are righteous and just, who provides for those that hold Him in awe and for His nation (including, v. 6, the land grant to Eretz Yisrael), followed by a declaration of the righteousness of His decrees, His eternal covenant with His nation, and a statement about Yirat Hashem. The psalm is delivered “be-sod yesharim ve-edah,” in the council of the upright (v. 1). These upright, of course, are the people of Yisrael (whose name echoes the very word yashar), “who are upright in their deeds according to the instruction delivered to them by God” (Radak). Toward the psalm’s conclusion we are informed that “The works of His hands are truth and justice; all His commandments are faithful. Steadfast forever, made in truth and uprightness (yashar)” (vv. 7-8). Apparently, the “strength of His hand,” with which he removed the land from the possession of the seven nations, transferring it to us, is of course the very same “work of His hands” (of the following verse) defined by this key term, yashar, which if read back into its first appearance at the psalm’s opening, points at a reinforcing interpretive circle. God’s commands are yesharim, and if we follow them we become upright as well, enabling us to join the exalted Sod Yesharim (council of the upright), through which we merit our ongoing possession of the land.
In fact, Midrash Tehillim (111:1) suggests the Sod Yesharim is formed through the deliverance of prophecy, the conduit through which the Divine word reaches the nation. This idea spins the interpretive wheel once more around its spoke: Prophecy is merited through the moral/intellectual perfection of the Navi, who in turn can instruct the people on upright ideals, which—if achieved—become the source of merit to Divine reward and the land of Israel itself.
It is impossible to consider the word “yashar,” especially in understanding the true rationale for Genesis, without reflecting on Netziv’s introduction to that book. (A text, it should be noted, which R. Brovender commends to our attention time and time again.) In considering why Genesis is nicknamed Sefer HaYashar Netziv observed that Bilaam referred to the Jewish nation as yesharim, not tzadkim or hasidim, and prayed that he would meet an end similar to theirs – “May my soul die the death of the upright and let my end be like his” (Numbers 23:10).
This is the praise of the Avot, the protagonists of Sefer HaYashar, who, aside from their rank as righteous and holy, and as maximizers of the love of God, were first and foremost characterized as yesharim. This is principally demonstrated by their moral behavior towards other nations, even the idolatrous, with whom they also acting out of love and fellow-feeling. (Netziv specifies the example of Avraham praying for Sedom.) It is for this reason that Gensis is called Sefer HaYashar, and if read back through Rashi (and his source in Psalm 111), it may tell us something about our claim to Eretz Yisrael.
Netziv points to the verses in Haazinu, “The deeds of the Mighty Rock are perfect, for all His ways are just; a faithful God, without injustice He is righteous and upright (yashar). Destruction is not His; it is His children’s defect you crooked and twisted generation.” (Deut. 32:4-5). He is yasher; to our detriment, we have often been “crooked and twisted” (ikesh u-ftaltol) – the very opposite image of the rectitude of upright yashrut. That, says Netziv, is the cause of exile. Our claim to Eretz Yisrael is a sign and direct function of “the strength of His works.” Our right to maintain that claim is the degree to which we can continue to count ourselves among the Sod Yesharim. Rashi’s opening comment is as much a moral call to us as it is a claim to the outside world.