October 9, 2004
In Isaiah\’s message, God pronounces that His creative program for the world includes a special mission for His people: \”I, the Lord, in My grace, have summoned you, and I have grasped you by the hand. I have created you, and appointed you a covenant people, a light of nations (l\’or goyim).\”(Isaiah 42:6) This verse serves as the origins of the description of the people of Israel as a \”light unto the nations – or l\’goyim. What, however, is the mission, for whom is it prescribed and who is the object of this mission? These are questions which are not so simple to answer.
In this verse, Isaiah seemingly assigns to the people of Israel the mission of being a light of nations.What is their mission? This question seems to be answered explicitly in the following verse: \”Opening eyes deprived of light, rescuing from confinement, from the dungeon*, those who sit in darkness.\”(verse 7) These words are meant, of course, to be understood figuratively. The mission is to open the eyes of those who are blind to Gods truth and as a consequence are confined themselves or are confining others because they do not realize the truth.
Still it is not quite clear who is the bearer of the mission, who is blind and who is confined? Rashis interpretation is different from what has become the conventional understanding of this verse. He identifies the light of the nations as Isaiah and the nations as the tribes of Israel. Isaiah\’s mission, according to Rashi, was to cause the tribes to be cognizant of Gods truth (open their eyes) and to return to God. He offers as an alternative interpretation: to inform the people that they will be exiled in the future but that God will ultimately redeem them. Rabbi Joseph Kara, a younger French contemporary of Rashi, identifies the light as Cyrus, the Persian king, who allowed the Jews to return from their Babylonian exile. Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, the great Spanish exegete and a contemporary of Rashi, asserts that the message about the light is offered by God through Isaiah about God Himself, namely, that God is the light who informs Israel that no evil will come upon them.
Rabbi David Kimche (Provance 12th century) introduced what has become the contemporary understanding of this verse. He asserts that Isaiah assigned to the people of Israel the role of light of nations and that the nations must walk by your [Israel\’s] light.\” (Is. 60:3) The light, according to Kimche, \”is the light of the Torah which goes out from Zion. The people of Israel maintain the existence of the nations of the world in two ways: the Jews have an obligation to teach the nations of the world the ways of peace and also to lead the nations of the world in recognizing God and observing the seven Noahide laws so that they, too, might walk in Gods ways. The nations will then end the blindness that they caused the children of Israel and end Israel\’s exile (confinement).\” (adapted translation)
This message, modified in some ways, has become the enduring meaning of this verse. Jews have come to see themselves as God\’s representatives in the world, spreading the message of God\’s ways and the enduring message that the way to God is through responsibility to God\’s commandments.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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