Tradition Today: A light unto the nations

Isaiah predicted that Cyrus would permit the Israelites to return to their own land and restore the Temple, which indeed he did.

During this period following Tisha Be'av, we read prophetic portions of comfort from the second part of the book of Isaiah, prophecies that biblical scholars attribute to an unnamed prophet whom they term "Second Isaiah." This prophet lived in Babylonia toward the end of the period of the exile and foretold the fall of Babylonia to Cyrus, the Persian. He predicted that Cyrus would permit the Israelites to return to their own land and restore the Temple, which indeed he did. My interest in Second Isaiah was rekindled recently by the publication of an enlightening new commentary on his works by my friend and colleague Prof. Shalom Paul (Isaiah 40-66, A Bible Commentary for Israel). Paul demonstrates that this prophet emphasized even more than any other the uniqueness of the God of Israel - the sole divine power in the universe. Time and time again the prophet speaks of God as the only God who exists, the sole creator, before whom there was none, the force that determines the events that will happen and reveals them to His prophet, the one who is appointing Cyrus to free God's people Israel. Many chapters are polemics against the practice of idolatry which was, of course, common in Babylonia where the exiles were living. Building upon the fact that the Torah designated Israel as God's servants, a "kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:6), this prophet repeatedly states that Israel is "My servant," "My creation," "a covenant-people." "You are My witnesses," he proclaims, and coins the phrase "a light unto the nations" (Isaiah 42:6). To people that had suffered defeat and been sent into exile, he offered the hope of a redemption no less miraculous than that from Egypt and the assurance that they had not been abandoned by their God - the only God. On the contrary, they would now be restored to a glory greater than any they had known. What was the purpose that the prophet envisioned for Israel as God's servants and witnesses? On one level the fact of their redemption from exile would demonstrate that the idols worshiped by the Babylonians and others had no power and no reality. Only the God of Israel exists and rules. This would eventually bring all the nations to abandon their false gods - "to Me every knee shall bend, every tongue swear loyalty" (Isaiah 45:23) - words incorporated into the Aleinu prayer envisioning the establishment of God's rule over the world. For the first time the religion of Israel is envisioned as universal, something that would spread to others who would "attach themselves to the Lord" (Isaiah 56:6-7). On another level, through our way of life, our loyalty to God and our actions we would serve as a light illuminating the world and showing others the way to righteous living, "the right way." This message is made clear in Isaiah Chapter 58 which we read as a haftara on Yom Kippur, the description of "the fast I desire" (58:6). "To unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin" (58:6-7). He goes even further when later on he bemoans the fact that "honesty stumbles in the public square and uprightness cannot enter. Honesty has been lacking, he who turns away from evil is despoiled" (Isaiah 59:14-15). If Israel acts in that way, it is not fulfilling its role. There is a fascinating parallel between the time of Second Isaiah and our own times. The miracle of redemption that he witnessed has been repeated in the return from exile to the modern State of Israel. Are we willing, however, to be God's servants and witnesses? Do we see ourselves as a "light unto the nations"? I think that the early founders of the Yishuv were certainly far from envisioning us as witnesses to the one God. Religious belief was not their strong point. However, they did often talk about being a "light unto the nations." They felt that they were establishing a nation that would live up to high standards of ethics and morality and would establish a society built upon the principles of equity, justice and honesty, a society others could emulate. Considering the fact that two former ministers have recently been sentenced to jail for serious crimes and two other prominent former governmental officials are currently awaiting trials for offenses at least as serious, we seem far from meeting the standards the prophet set for us. It seems that we have a choice. We have to decide if we are going to be a nation "like all the nations" or if we are going to be a "light unto the nations." We know what the prophet quoted in Isaiah would say. His message is just as pertinent to the returnees of this exile as it was to those who left Babylonia. We would do well to heed his advice. The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the author of several books, the most recent being Entering Torah.