(Photo: Howie Mischel)
Radiating From Our Land: Becoming the Ohr Lagoyim we are Meant to Be
BY RABBI REUVEN TARAGIN
“For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick clouds the peoples; but upon you Hashem will shine, and His glory shall be seen upon you. And nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance” (Yishayahu 60:2–3).
Many people cite Yishayahu’s description of the Jewish people as an ohr lagoyim, “a light unto the nations”, as a clarion call to serve as light unto others. But what way of life will make this possible?
A light from the Land of Israel
Though most associate our responsibility to enlighten the nations with Yishayahu’s ohr lagoyim, the foundation of this call to action lies in the Torah itself.
As the Jewish people prepare to enter Eretz Yisrael and begin their lives as a people in their land interacting with other nations, Moshe encourages them to continue observing mitzvot. One of the many reasons he gives is that other nations will see this observance as wise and intelligent.1
Naturally, people and nations want to live in a way that others approve, understand and respect. This often leads to assimilation and abandonment of one’s unique values. But Moshe taught the first generation of Jews entering Eretz Yisrael to avoid veering away from Torah and mitzvot in the hope of being appreciated and respected by other nations. Though our people may feel self-conscious about our different way of life, the nations will only respect us as wise and intelligent if we remain true to the Torah.
But the Torah goes even further. Our goal is not merely to make the nations appreciate our values and way of life, but to teach them to live by Torah values as well. At the footsteps of Mount Sinai, Hashem explained that His mitzvot help us play the proactive role of mamlechet kohanim,2 serving as “a nation of ministers”.3 As kohanim teach and inspire the Jewish people, all of Am Yisrael is charged with teaching and inspiring the other nations of the world.4
Am Yisrael’s unique role is hinted to at the very beginning of our history, when Hashem promised Avraham that his children would be like the stars of the sky.5 Why did Hashem compare us to the stars? The Netziv explains that the Jewish people, like the stars, are meant to enlighten the entire world.6 Like Avraham Avinu, we are meant to guide all of humanity and draw them closer to Hashem. Hashem chose us and gave us the extraordinary tools of Torah, mitzvot, and the Land of Israel to teach and enlighten the rest of the world.
Reflecting the right light
In chapter 60, Yishayahu mentions our ohr lagoyim role towards other nations as a continuation of his description of the revelation of Hashem’s light upon us.7 Hashem reveals His light to us and we, in turn, spread it to the nations 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.8
Similarly, Rabbi Hershel Schachter shlit”a,9 links ohr lagoyim to the Torah’s description of the nations of the world seeing “Hashem’s name upon us and revering us”.10 Our relationship with Hashem and personification of the ideal form of tzelem Elokim serves as a model for all humanity.
Sforno11 asserts that we must play a proactive role. Like the first Jew, Avraham Avinu, who drew people to serve G-d by “calling out in Hashem’s name”,12 we his descendants should inspire people to recognize Hashem’s presence and role in the world.
Radak13 links ohr lagoyim to another famous Yishayahu prophecy: “For out of Zion shall go forth Torah, and the word of Hashem from Jerusalem.”14 The Torah expresses Hashem’s light15 that the Jewish people must teach the world. By embodying Hashem’s light through our personal lives, we spread this light to others.16
Radak sees ohr lagoyim as connected to “For out of Zion shall go forth Torah”. The next verse 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 ohr lagoyim teaches that peace will be achieved only once people are unified by the light of Torah. As opposed to John Lennon – who, in his song Imagine, linked world peace to the negation of ideology – Yishayahu teaches us that world peace can only be achieved through shared values.17
Rav Kook18 explains that this is why it is critical to emphasize the religious and spiritual sides of our national identity. In order for the Jewish people to radiate Hashem’s light to the rest of the world, we must ensure our State is rooted in and guided by the light of His Torah.
Desperate to be accepted by secular society, many Jewish movements and elements within the State of Israel have diluted Jewish values and adopted contemporary ones – often using the term ohr lagoyim 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. By losing touch with the light of Torah, they were ultimately seen by others as no more meaningful than the society they were mimicking.
Fulfilling our true role
As foreseen by Yishayahu, our return to Eretz Yisrael is bound up with serving as an ohr lagoyim. This role will earn us respect and bring peace to us and the entire world. Yet this vision remains elusive.
Despite Israel’s significant contributions to the world – including drip irrigation, electric car grids, Waze, USBs, pillcams, solar windows, space cameras and myriad 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. This is because we have not yet fulfilled our mission to become a true ohr lagoyim – a nation that brings the genuine light of Hashem to the world and offers humanity true direction and meaning.
May we soon realize the true vision of ohr lagoyim, inspire the world through Torah – and thereby bring peace to the State of Israel and the entire world!
1 Devarim 4:6.
2 Shemot 19:6.
3 Rashi (ibid.).
4 Sforno (ibid.). See also R’ Avraham ben HaRambam (ibid.) who records that his father explained that we are meant to be role models for the other nations.
5 Bereishit 15:5.
6 HaAmek Davar, ibid.
7 Yishayahu 60:1–3. These pesukim are the source for the hit’oreri stanza of Lecha Dodi.
8 See Metzudat David and Malbim. Our role is to bring the nations of the world to commit themselves to Hashem as opposed to idol worship.
9 “Our Light unto the Nations”, HaMizrachi, Rabbi Sacks Commemorative Edition 5782 (Vol. 4, No. 6).
10 Devarim 28:10.
11 Sforno, Shemot 19:6.
12 Bereishit 12:8, 13:4.
13 Radak, Yishayahu 42:6. See also Sforno (Shemot 19:6) who links our role as “a nation of priests” to this verse.
14 Yishayahu 2:3. See also Michah 4:2.
15 Mishlei 6:23.
16 See Radak, who explains that we must teach other nations the 7 mitzvot they are meant to observe.
17 See also Tzefanyah 3:9.
18 Hamispeid BeYerushalayim.
Rabbi Reuven Taragin is Educational Director of Mizrachi and Dean of the Yeshivat Hakotel Overseas Program.