Our God-Given Light: Its Meaning and Basis in Jewish Tradition


There is a Jewish belief that it is our role to shine a light unto the nations. Many of us are familiar with this idea and shape our actions around this principle. But where does this idea of being a light unto the nations come from; where in Jewish history does this appear, and what does it require of us?

The phrase “a light unto the nations” appears in Isaiah in two different locations. The first instance is when God states: “I the Lord, in My grace, have summoned you, and I have grasped you by the hand. I created you, and appointed you a covenant people, a light of nations” (Isaiah 42:6). Later God states: “It is too little that you should be My servant in that I raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the survivors of Israel: I will also make you a light of nations, that My salvation may reach the ends of the Earth” (Isaiah 49:6). 

The phrase appears in Hebrew as “לְאוֹר גּוֹיִם” (“le’or goyim”), literally translated as “a light of nations.” This interpretation implies something different than the common phrase known today, which is “a light unto the nations” (translated as “אוֹר לְגּוֹיִם”—“or l’goyim”). Instead of instructing us to be a light to the nations, this interpretation states that God will illuminate the nations through us.

The idea of God extending Jewish holiness to other nations is common in the Torah. One such example is in the beginning of Parshat Lech Lecha. God tells Avraham to “go forth” to the place that God will show him. In doing so, God says to Avraham: “I will bless those who bless you and curse the one who curses you; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.” The phrase “bless themselves by you” is similar to the idea that God will illuminate other nations through us. Though there is one problem with this idea. If God fulfills this commandment for us, then where is our responsibility?

Additionally, having established that the idea of being “a light unto the nations” is different from the scriptural source לְאוֹר גּוֹיִם (le’or goyim), we must now ask: where exactly does this teaching as it is known today come from? When answering this question it is important to examine the idea that God made us a “light.” While we may not learn our obligation to society from the phrase in Isaiah, we can learn that the Jewish people are a light source elsewhere in Tanakh. 

In particular, it is our responsibility to take this God-given light and illuminate other nations. This exact idea can be seen in other locations in Isaiah, such as in 60:2–3: “For darkness shall cover the earth…but upon you God will shine, and His glory shall be seen upon you. And nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance.” The belief in spreading “our light” seems to match up better with the idea of being a light unto the nations. 

Other places in Tanakh also display the idea of Jews illuminating the world. God promises Avraham that his descendants will be like the stars in the sky. The Netziv, a well known rabbi from the nineteenth century, comments on the use of stars as an analogy, explaining that we Jews are compared to stars in order to show our obligation to light up the world, just like stars light up the night sky. Through the light that God gives us, we must light up the world.

But what is our light, and how do we fulfill the obligation of being an or l’goyim? Is it through adhering to Jewish law or doing good deeds? Deuteronomy 4:6 provides an answer, saying: “Observe them carefully, for this is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’”

This tells us that we influence the surrounding nations by observing the commandments given to us by God. Rabbi Herschel Shachter says or l’goyim should be interpreted along with the pasuk (verse): “And all the peoples of the earth shall see that God’s name is proclaimed over you, and they shall stand in fear of you” (Deuteronomy 28:10). This demonstrates that our relationship with God acts as an example to the rest of the world. To truly be an or l’goyim, we must connect with God and stay true to our tradition and commandments, and in so doing, enlighten the world around us.

The idea of being a light unto the nations doesn’t directly come from the words “לְאוֹר גּוֹיִם” written in Isaiah. Instead, it is the result of connecting our God-given light to the idea that we will illuminate the world around us with this light. 

This obligation is not unconnected from Jewish practice. It is through a commitment to Judaism that we light up the world. It is through our Torah learning, our charity, our connection to God, and the way we treat others, that we are a role model towards the nations around us. This is our responsibility of being a light unto the nations. Now, more than ever, when the world is against us, and literal nations are turning their backs, we Jews must hold onto our commitment to this. Jews should turn the endless darkness into light—physically, mentally, and spiritually.

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