Photo Credit: Jodie Maoz

On Simchat Torah, we completed reading the Torah and began again with Bereishit. For the haftara, we read the first chapter of Sefer Yehoshua, concerned as we were with new beginnings. The elevation of Yehoshua also demonstrates the continuation of the path of Moshe, his teacher and ours. In this week’s haftara, the navi Yeshayahu uses the creation of the universe and of mankind as a springboard for dealing with the responsibilities incumbent upon humanity in general, and the people of Israel in particular, to be the instruments of Hashem in His plan for creation.

In our haftara, we encounter the first of three times the expression “a light unto the nations” is used by to describe Israel (Yeshayahu 42:6). It is very important to understand the implication of this statement and especially the challenge that inheres in it. There are unfortunately many people of Jewish extraction who believe the election of the Jews, our “chosenness,” to be a birthright or a guarantee of a sort of superiority over other nations. However, this understanding couldn’t be farther from the truth, as can easily be seen from the context of the phrase in our haftara.

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Here in the opening passages, we see that Hashem, in His capacity as Creator of the universe, is charging Israel with a responsibility. This responsibility derives explicitly from His covenant with us. If we keep His mitzvot faithfully and serve Him as He has instructed us to do, then we will be a light unto the nations insofar as we reveal to them the power of G-d to govern and to redeem. The Malbim reads that passage in connection with the following verse (42:7), conveying the idea that mankind without the revelation of the Torah is spiritually “blind.” Thus, the faith and faithfulness of Israel literally give sight and illumination to the nations of the world.

Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hacohen Kook, zt”l, addressed this idea in his little-known early tract, For the Perplexed of the Generation. By refining in themselves these attributes that have been prescribed by the Creator, when a time comes that the nations of the world will need to understand what Hashem expects of each of them, they will look to Israel to guide by example. Rav Kook says that by that time, from the study of Torah, Israel will have “internalized mercy, humility, [and] kindness” in such a way that they will manifest these traits in the eyes of the whole world.

Then the nations of the world will look to Israel who will indeed light the way to a new age of humanity to be defined by these characteristics. It should go without saying that without Torah, and without mercy, humility and kindness, there is no light – we are just another nation.

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Avraham Levitt is a poet and philosopher living in Philadelphia. He has written on Israeli art, music, and spirituality and is working to reawaken interest in medieval Jewish mysticism. He can be reached at avraham@thegeula.com.