In the darkest time of the year, we celebrate with light.
In the Book of Isaiah The Jewish people are commanded to “be a light to the nations.” At this festival of lights how can we be a light to the nations? We all know about the 6th night of Hanukkah where we are asked not to receive gifts but to give away gifts, and this is a wonderful act of tzedakkah. But is this being a light to the nations? What would it look like if you saw a light? What kind of act would it have to be to compel you to change your ways, give up something you love but are told is bad? What does it mean, what kind of responsibility is it for us to be asked to be “or lagoyim” a light to the nations?
I think I have to start with the opposite. I know there is nothing I hate more than a headline like “Rabbi Arrested.” When Jews publicly do really bad things, it feels like it puts all Jews in a bad light. I am not ashamed to be a Jew, but I am ashamed for us to be in the news in such a bad light. And I fear that these incidents are just the flimsy excuses our detractors need to concretize their hatred or the prejudices. But I cannot control the actions of others, I cannot make Jews stop behaving illegally, nor can I change how others view us when this happens. I can only try to live a better example and inspire others to live a better life as well.
Is this what it means to be a light to the nations? So far it seems to just be a light to the Jewish people, “live justly so we don’t all look bad.” We can probably all think of a thousand examples when we or others did everything right but the one mistake gets picked out, from the -1 on an exam, to a big one mistake of a car accident, to the 1% of people filled with hatred who pick up weapons against the innocent. These are the incidents which make the news. How often do we hear praise for everyday goodness, sometimes our heroes who were “just doing their job” get praised (to their chagrin), but the everyday, I didn’t steal, I didn’t hit, I didn’t… we don’t praise this. Nor is this exuding light to others; it is being good and moral and possibly doing so while struggling against personal evil inclinations (a laudable achievement) but this behavior will not shine light into the darkest corners of the earth, or encourage others to change their ways.
Most times I am pleased to encourage people to be good and moral, certainly to not give Jews a bad name, or even to be part of the “positive” stereotypes. But I think about our festival of lights, of what it might mean to shine light into the darkness. I think about the dark places of the world and I am humbled at the task. What would it truly look like to be a light to the nations? Perhaps it means to show people, like the Rabbi’s trip to Birmingham AL, that Jews rebuild homes not because the homeowners are Jewish, but because we (the builders) are Jewish. Perhaps it means that every act we take must be with the knowledge that God has commanded us to be holy (not good but holy). Perhaps it means taking more than one day off receiving presents to seek out those without. I don’t know if I can be a light to “the nations” but I think I can touch another’s life. I think I can bring light into one person’s life. Consider, not just donating to a food pantry but helping to distribute food; not just donating a present but volunteering to pass them out, or at a hospital, or a shelter.
What is your vision of an illuminated world? Is there one thing you could do to help take one step toward that? There are so many issues to care about: poverty, hunger, animals, domestic violence, suicide, equal rights, war and dislocation, famine, disease… What would your world look like if you were in charge? Can you take charge of anything to help create the change you want to see? Can you be part of taking the world as it is and changing it into the world it could be? I think this mission might be what it means to be a light unto the nations. Not just the change itself, but creating the hope in others that such a change can occur.
Be your own light, as we celebrate this festival of lights.