“And now, if you will heed My voice and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine,
And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel” (Shemot 19:5-6).
“Observe them faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples, who on hearing of all these laws will say, Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people” (Devarim 4:6).
“Arise, shine, for your light has dawned; The Presence of the Lord has shone upon you!
Behold! Darkness shall cover the earth, And thick clouds the peoples; But upon you the Lord will shine, And His Presence be seen over you.
And nations shall walk by your light, Kings, by your shining radiance” (Yeshaya 60:1-3).
Many people cite Yeshayahu’s description of the Jewish people as an “or la’goyim – a light unto the nations” as a clarion call for us to enlighten others. But what way of life makes this possible?
A Light from the Land of Israel (The Torah Sources)
Though most associate our responsibility to enlighten the nations with Yeshayahu’s call to be an or la’goyim, the foundation lies in the Torah itself.
As the Jewish people prepared to enter Eretz Yisrael and begin their lives as a people in their land interacting with other nations, Moshe encouraged them to continue observing mitzvot. One of the many reasons he gave was that other nations would see this observance as wise and intelligent (Devarim 4:6).
Naturally, people and nations want to live in a way that others understand and respect. This often leads to assimilation and abandonment of one’s own unique values. Moshe taught the first generation of Jews entering Eretz Yisrael to avoid veering from Torah and mitzvot in the hope of being appreciated and respected by other nations. Though we might feel self-conscious about our different way of life, the nations will respect us as wise and intelligent if we remain true to the Torah.
In this week’s parsha in Sefer Shemot, the Torah goes even further. At the footsteps of Mount Sinai, Hashem explained that His mitzvot are meant to help us play the proactive role of “mamlechet kohanim,” (Shemot 19:6) to serve as a nation of ministers (Rashi ibid). Like kohanim who educate the Jewish people, all of Am Yisrael is charged with teaching and inspiring the nations of the world. (Devarim 33:10; Mishneh Torah L’Rambam, Hilchot Shemitah V’Yovel 13:12 (Sforno ibid).
Our goal and responsibility is not merely to have the nations appreciate our values and way of life, but to teach them to live by Torah values as well. Like the first Jew – Avraham Avinu – who drew people to avodat Hashem by “calling out in Hashem’s name,” (Bereishit 12:8, 13:4) we, his descendants, should actively call people to recognize Hashem’s presence and role in the world. This is how the Netziv explains Hashem’s promise to Avraham that his children would be like the stars of the sky (Bereishit 15:5): the Jewish people, like the stars, are meant to enlighten the world (Ha’emek Davar ibid).
The idea that emerges from Shemot and Devarim is that Hashem brought us to the land of Israel and gave us Torah and mitzvot in order for us to enlighten the rest of the world.
Yeshayahu: The Goal of our Return
Yeshayahu HaNavi applied this idea to the Jewish people’s similar situation hundreds of years after their first entry into Eretz Yisrael. Though they had initially succeeded in building the Beit HaMikdash and developing a kingdom that other nations respected and sought to emulate, (for example Melachim I, 10) they eventually veered from the proper path. Yeshayahu described a society rife with injustice and immorality. This reality would lead to the churban HaMikdash and an exile meant to punish and purify the Jewish people.
Though most of Sefer Yeshayahu consists of harsh descriptions of the impending churban, Yeshayahu concluded with prophecies of consolation, including the description of the Jewish people’s return to Eretz Yisrael and their restoration to their place amongst the nations. This is the context in which Yeshayahu HaNavi used the phrase “or la’goyim” (Yeshayahu 42:6, 59:6, 60:3).
Though Jews should always seek to influence others, Moshe and Yeshayahu framed this role as part of our presence in Eretz Yisrael. Our life in Eretz Yisrael gives us a national presence and place on the international stage. This affords us the opportunity to build a genuine Torah society which can serve as a model for others.
This is the backdrop to the Zionist vision – presented by the likes of David Ben Gurion (Yichud Ve’yi’ud, pg. 359) and Ze’ev Jabotinsky (Ne’um B’kenes Hayesod Shel Hahistadrut Hatziyonit Hachadasha, Ne’umim 2:179) – which saw our being an or la’goyim as a central part of the Zionist mission. Jabotinsky saw this as the ultimate goal of the state and the third and final stage of the Zionist mission, with the earlier stages being the formation of the state and the ingathering of the Jewish people.
Returning to our place among the nations is meant to facilitate more than just our ability to “live like other nations”; it is meant to facilitate our serving as an or la’goyim. S.Z. Kahane used this idea to explain the choice of the menorah as the symbol of the State of Israel. The menorah symbolizes the light the Jewish people’s return to Israel offers the entire world. The Mishkan’s menorah chosen as a symbol for the state is an earthly version of the Netziv’s celestial starlight we are meant to model ourselves after.
In his hesped for Theodore Herzl (Hamispeid BeYerushalayim), Rav Kook also emphasized this idea and urged the Zionist movement to focus on the kind of light that would develop a society that could realize this mission. A closer study of Yeshayahu’s prophecies will help us appreciate Rav Kook’s words.
Reflecting the Right Light (Yeshayahu 60)
In Chapter 60, Yeshayahu mentions our or la’goyim role after describing the revelation of Hashem’s light upon us (Yeshayahu 60:1-3). Hashem reveals His light to us and we, in turn, spread it to the rest of the world. Like the moon which reflects the light of the sun, the Jewish people radiate Hashem’s light to the rest of the world. (See Metzudat David ibid. and the Malbim ibid).
Along similar lines, the Radak (to Yeshayahu 42:6) links or la’goyim to another famous Yeshayahu prophecy: “Ki miTziyon teitzei Torah u’dvar Hashem miYerushalayim” (Yeshayahu 2:2 and see also Micah 4:2). The Jewish people – residing in Yerushalayim – should teach the Torah, the practical expression of Hashem’s light, (Mishlei 6:23) to the rest of the world. We should embody Hashem’s light through our personal lives and spread this light to others through the words of His Torah.
The Radak sees or la’goyim as connected to the continuation of the “miTziyon teitzeh Torah” prophecy as well. The following pasuk describes world peace: “Nations will not raise swords against each other and no longer study the art of war.” The juxtaposition of world peace to or la’goyim teaches that peace will be achieved when people are unified by the light of Torah. As opposed to John Lennon’s song Imagine, which linked world peace to the negation of ideology, Yeshayahu teaches us that world peace can only be achieved when people are unified by an appreciation of Hashem’s Torah (See also Tzefanya 3:9).
Rav Kook explains that this is why it is so critical to emphasize the religious and spiritual sides of our identity. In order for the Jewish nation in the Jewish state to radiate Hashem’s light to the rest of the world, we must ensure that our state is rooted in and guided by the light of His Torah.
Desperate to be accepted by secular society, many Jewish movements throughout the ages, as well as elements within today’s State of Israel, diluted Jewish values and adopted contemporary ones – often using the term or la’goyim to justify this shift. They hoped that accommodating Judaism to contemporary tastes would bring others to identify with and learn from them. In truth, reforming Judaism to reflect modern sensibilities meant that instead of radiating Hashem’s light, they were merely reflecting contemporary values. They lost touch with the light of Torah Judaism and were ultimately seen by others as no more meaningful than the society they were mimicking.
We should learn from this mistake, heed the words of Rav Kook, and build our identity on Hashem’s light as reflected in His Torah. When we do, we have a meaningful light to offer to the world.
Fulfilling our True Role
Like in the times of Moshe Rabbeinu and as foreseen by Yeshayahu, our return to Eretz Yisrael is meant to include our serving as an or la’goyim. This role will earn us respect and bring peace to us and the entire world.
Yet this vision remains elusive.
Despite the State of Israel’s significant contributions to the world, such as drip irrigation, electric car grids, Waze, USB’s, pillcams, solar windows, space cameras and other technologies, Jews continue to be hated. The State of Israel is the most vilified nation on the planet and lives under constant threat of attack – both from without and within.
This is because we have not fulfilled our mission to become a true or la’goyim – a nation that brings the genuine light of Hashem to the world and offers humanity true direction and meaning.
May we realize what being an or la’goyim truly means and live our lives in a way that allows us to play this role. May doing so allow us to impact the world in the intended way and, through this, bring peace to the State of Israel and the entire world.