Everyone knows the first Rashi on Chumash, right? He begins by quoting R’ Yitzchak in a Medrash, asking why the Torah doesn’t begin with the mitzvah of ‘Ha-chodesh ha-zeh lachem’, about 1/3 the way through Shemot?
Rashi goes on to explain that the purpose of the creation story is to establish God’s ownership over the world, in order to justify our occupation of the land of Israel. God gave it to us. It’s God, so he can give it to whomever he wants and take it away from whomever he wants. At the very least, this is how everyone I’ve ever encountered explains this Rashi, and, at first blush, it would seem to be exactly what Rashi is saying.
However, as I once posted before, and I think bears repeating again and again until this becomes the common understanding of this Rashi. The difference can’t be overstated.
Basically, the key misunderstood line is ‘'le-eit asher yashar be-einav'. It’s commonly understood to mean ‘to whomever he pleases’. In that understanding, God’s will is made to be arbitrary, and if he chooses not to give you prime real estate, that’s just tough luck, because He owns the world and can do with it what he pleases.
However, throughout Chumash and the writings of Chaza”l that which is ‘right in God’s eyes’ is not arbitrary at all. It’s about a system of Godly values, enshrined both in halakhic legislation and in supererogatory practice (lifnim mi-shurat ha-din, which is related to the verse ‘ve-asita yashar ve-hatov be-einei Hashem’), by which we, as people, follow in God’s ways. We will not do what is right and good in our own eyes, as is the common negative refrain of Sefer Shoftim, rather, that which is right and good in God’s eyes.
The implication of God’s creation is not that we must respect God’s ownership of it, but that the incomprehensible motives that God had for creating the world can somehow be called ‘Goodness’ or ‘Kindness’ – Olam Chesed Yibaneh – and the challenge of being human is the challenge of continuing the work that God started but left for us to complete (asher bara Elokim la’asot, et al). This challenge began with Adam, but we see now that it began even before; it was built into creation. It continues through the stories of our Patriarchs, though with the difference that whereas through Abraham the challenge was for all of humanity over all of the world, in the wake of multiple failures God chose one family to achieve those goals in one place, and to serve as the catalyst of universal success. Our Partiarchs, especially Abraham, were guided by that set of Godly values and traits – chessed, tzedek, mishpat – before they were enshrined in the Torah’s legislation. The message – that is made clear in the Netziv’s introduction to Bereishit and as AlanLaz brings in the name of the Netivot Shalom, there’s a basic sense of yashrut which undergirds the Torah, which the Torah seeks to develop and refine, and without which the mitzvot are rendered largely worthless (see the Netziv’s sharp intro if you think that’s an exaggeration). This sense of Yashrut, present in creation itself, it the prerequisite for everything that comes after Parashat Ha-Chodesh. Thus, Bereishit is nicknamed Sefer Ha-Yashar. How can we miss that allision in the first Rashi?
It also means that the covenant that develops throughout Chumash – first between God and Adam, then Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, etc. until it’s contracted as the Torah with all of Israel – is present in the very act of Creation. The goal of creation was to be able to enact a covenant with a people, whereby they would live according to that which is Yashar be-eini Hashem, and would reciprocally merit to live in the land which is constantly under God’s scrutiny (einei Hashem Elokecha bah me-reishit ha-shana ad acharit ha-shana), and where living according to the Covenant is part and parcel of living in the land (see, e.g., the entire book of Devarim). And according to this Rashi, it’s built into creation.
A final comment relates to the type of ‘Zionism’ that this Rashi promotes. The more common read lends itself to a Zionism of entitlement – it’s ours, not yours, so get out. The other read is much more about Zionism as a challenge, something that we must constantly be striving to live up to. I suspect that it also offers a fundamentally different way to relate to indigenous populations. When one is fvrced to admit a degree of uncertainty about his own deserved-ness of the land, it becomes much easier to tolerate the presence and claims of others (see also what I wrote here and here).