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Parshas Tetzaveh (5776)

A Light Unto The Nations?

This world is full of paradoxes. [A paradox is a statement or proposition that seems self-contradictory or absurd but in reality expresses a possible truth.] Here are but a few of them:

“Good judgement is the result of experience and experience the result of bad judgement.” - Mark Twain

“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” - Carl R. Rogers

“Religion. It's given people hope in a world torn apart by religion.” - Jon Stewart

“A lot of people never use their initiative because no-one told them to.” - Banksy

“All generalizations are false, including this one.” - Albert Einstein

“If you are willing to do only what’s easy, life will be hard. But if you are willing to do what’s hard, life will be easy.” - T. Harv Eker

There is one major paradox that I would like to share with you that touches the core of what it means to be a Jew and what we believe is the collective mission of the Jewish people here on earth. Allow me to explain.

We read in the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Tetzaveh, all about the Menorah (Candelabra) that was kindled every day in the Mishkan (Tabernacle) with pure olive oil.

As G-d said to Moses: “Now you shall command the Children of Israel that they shall take for you pure olive oil, pressed, for illumination, to kindle a lamp continually” (Exodus 27:20).

The Midrash Rabbah (36:1) here quotes a verse in the Book of Jeremiah (11:16) in which the prophet compares the Jewish people to an olive tree. It then asks: “Why did Jeremiah see fit to compare Israel to an olive tree? [He could have compared them to many other trees!]”

One interpretation of Jeremiah’s comparison of Israel to the olive offered by the Midrash is as follows: “All other liquids intermingle with one another, whereas olive oil does not intermingle, but stands separate from other liquids when combined with them. And so, too, the people of Israel do not intermingle with the other nations, as it is stated, ‘You shall not intermarry with them’ (Deuteronomy 7:3)”.

So we see from this Midrash (and there are many other sources in the Talmud and elsewhere that say the same) that the Jewish people are to remain separate and distinct from the nations around them, and not to intermingle or intermarry with them, so that we should not be negatively influenced by them.

Yet herein lies the paradox. For aren’t we taught that Israel has the incessant mission of proclaiming G-d’s teachings to the world? As it is written, “I, G-d, have called you in righteousness…and have set you up as a covenant of the people, for a light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6).

In practical terms, this means that the Jewish people are meant to teach the rest of the world the Sheva Mitzvos B’nei Noach, the “Seven Commandments of Noah’s Descendants” (commonly referred to as the Noachide Laws).
These include:
1. Do not deny G-d.
2. Do not blaspheme G-d.
3. Do not murder.
4. Do not engage in illicit sexual relations.
5. Do not steal.
6. Do not eat of a live animal.
7. Establish courts/legal system to ensure obedience to the law.

As Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson ZT”L, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, explains:

At the dawn of human history, G-d gave man seven rules to follow in order that His world be sustained. So it is recounted in the Book of Genesis as interpreted by our tradition in the Talmud. At the heart of this universal moral code is the acknowledgement that morality - indeed, civilization itself - must be predicated on the belief in G-d. Unless we recognize a Higher Power to Whom we are responsible and Who observes and knows our actions, we will not transcend the selfishness of our character and the subjectivity of our intellect. If man himself is the final arbiter of right and wrong, then "right", for him or her, will be what they desire, regardless of its consequences to the other inhabitants of earth. At Mount Sinai, G-d charged the Children of Israel to serve as His "Light unto the nations" by bringing all of humanity to a recognition of their Creator and adherence to His laws.

Can you see the paradox already? On the one hand, the Torah warns us not to intermingle with the nations around us, yet at the same time, as part of our collective mission to be “a light unto the nations”, we are meant to teach them about G-d and morality! How does that work? Are we to be inclusive or exclusive? Surely we can’t be both!

We can resolve this paradox with the help of a teaching of the Mahara”l of Prague, the great 16th century Torah scholar, philosopher and mystic.

He writes in Netzach Yisrael (Chapter 25) that the nations of the world are compared to water, as it says, “… release me and rescue me from great waters, from the hand of strangers” (Psalms 144:7), whereas the Jewish people - and the Torah that defines them - are compared to fire, as it says, “… from His right hand He presented the fiery Torah to them” (Deuteronomy 33:2).

When fire and water come together, the water will extinguish the fire unless there is a separation (e.g. metal barrier) between them. Once the separation is between them, the fire will now be able to heat up the water and bring it to a boil.

So, too – explains the Mahara”l – it is with the Jewish people and the nations of the world. Our collective mission as Jews is to ‘heat up’ and ignite the world with a passion for G-d and His laws of universal morality. This we can accomplish – even as we remain separate and distinct from our non-Jewish neighbors - by being shining role models for what it means to live a religious, G-d-centered, and meaningful life.

But if we attempt to remove the barrier between us and we get too close to the nations around us, we are in danger of our fire being extinguished by the waters of assimilation and intermarriage, and we will then fail in our mission to be a much-needed light unto the nations.

May we all merit to fulfill our collective mission as the Jewish people and to bring the rest of the world closer to G-d. Amen.

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