There’s a concept in our tradition of “Or LaGoyim”. It is rooted in an ancient prophecy of Isaiah, the prophet. He understood that the behavior of our nation has the capacity to shine light upon the world. By this, we understood that the behavior of the Jewish people can help the condition of humanity or serve to inspire others to create a better society and a better world.
Within the Jewish people and our conversations there have always been those who see our role in a more limited way. That is, some have interpreted to mean that we are to inspire all the tribes of Israel and not be concerned with the larger world. If we create a people that live well and ethically, then others will be inspired. As opposed to that, there are those that say we must be open to the world, live as a part of it and allow our light to shine out as we absorb the light of others. Our own preoccupation with the challenges to Jews and Jewish communities and the security of Israel has often created a world view that sees our people as existing in opposition to all others. And so the work of the community becomes totally self-focused. The concerns become our own.
But no matter how one sees oneself or obligations in this scheme, the reality is that we live in a larger world that is deeply interconnected, we live in a world with threats to everyone, and we are a part of humanity. The values of pluralism and freedom, respect for the other, and repairing the world stand out and speak loudly. America, especially, has been a place where Jews have learned that contributing citizenship and active civic involvement benefits all.
This week there were a few tragic occurrences. The earthquake in Nepal has taken thousands of lives. There are thousands that remain unaccounted for. When I saw the list in the NY Times I noticed that six of the ten organizations raising funds for relief were Jewish organizations. I read that Israel has sent two 747’s filled with members of the IDF and other relief workers. And they have already set up a hospital on the ground to provide relief. This is what we should be doing. It’s not for notoriety. It’s to help human beings. And if you have not yet contributed for relief, please do so.
American Jewish World Service: www.ajws.org
The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee: www.jdc.org
The Jewish Federations of North America: www.jewishfederations.org
Red Cross: www.redcross.org
This week we witnessed the events in Baltimore. We saw again, another young black man brutalized by policemen, now charged with second degree murder. We saw a neighborhood fall into chaos. This is not a local problem, it’s not a black problem, it’s not a policing problem… it is an American problem. And we need all of our resources to address the many levels of challenge brought by economic disparity, racial divide, family, educational issues, drug policy and laws, policing, food issues, housing… we can go on and on. These are issues in America and thus they are also our issues. But for us to feel that, we need to be able to see the humanity in all those who suffer. We cannot simply see the world as us and them – we are a part of them and they are us.
So this concept of “Or LaGoyim”, the light unto the nations imposes upon us obligations to behave in ways that raise us as human beings, and at the same time connects us to all humanity. It’s a constant challenge. It imposes upon us a call to empathize with the pain of others, be they in our homes, our neighborhoods or around the world. And once we feel that, then we reach out.
See you in shul.
Rabbi David Steinhardt
This column is dedicated to the memory of Rubin Shafran z”l