Emitting light: Judaism’s enduring vocation

“Any questions?” a rabbi asked upon concluding a presentation about the beauty of Judaism.  An agnostic Jew seated near the front of the room raised his hand.  “I’ve been listening carefully for the last hour, and I disagree with everything you’ve said.”  The rabbi responded, “Well then, do you consider us brothers?”  After giving it some thought, he conceded, “Yes, I suppose we are.”  “Ah, wonderful!” replied the rabbi “Why?”  He soberly answered, “Because Hitler would have gassed us both.”

Do antisemites hold the only key to our cohesion? 

Deborah Lipstadt is a professor of Jewish History.  The present uptick in ugly incidents of Jew-hatred has forced her to do that which historians rarely do – write a book about current events.  This week she told a UK interviewer of three subjects that antisemites reliably raise: money, a conniving capacity to get the powerful to do their bidding, and a disloyalty that darkly asserts that Jews are loyal only to themselves. 

Of course vigilance and active discourse about escalating threats are required.  But those hostile to us least deserve sovereignty over our identity.  Jewish life is not about what the world does to us.  It is about what we bring to the world.  As much as dark forces have sought to objectify us over the centuries, we have been and will forever be called to enlighten. 

Light is where this week’s portion of Torah opens.  Our ancestors are instructed to bring properly processed olive oil for the ongoing kindling of lamps (ner tamid) (Ex. 27:20).  The eternal light being addressed is the seven-branched Menorah.  It corresponds to the seven-day week.  But the seven flames may also indicate seven ways in which Judaism shimmers.  It nourishes growth, deepens joy, solaces grief, stirs hope, activates accountability, awakens empathy, and makes goodness glow. 

More historically consistent than the hatred of our people is the holiness of our people.  It is no accident that the Hebrew word for consistent or eternal, tamid, occurs seven times throughout this week’s portion.

We are invited to wear our Judaism in ways that are morally handsome.  In so doing, we may ‘apportion honor and bestow glory’ (l’chavod u’l’tifaret) (Ex. 28:2).  And may the light that binds us, emit a faith-warming glow that dissipates darkness for a brighter future.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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