The Meaning of “Light unto the Nations”
This is both a dvar Torah (a word from the Torah) for Shabbat and a refutation of an oft-made anti-Zionist charge. G-d’s word is the best defense of Zionism—that must never be forgotten.
G-d’s phrase to Isaiah about the Israelites, “A light unto the nations”, is frequently used by the detractors of Zionism to argue against Israel’s defensive measures against Islamic terrorism, such as the security fence (“Apartheid Wall”) and the checkpoints, as well as to demand that Israel be the first to make concessions, apologies and all manner of capitulations to the “Palestinians”. A simple literal (i.e. enclosed in quotation marks) search for the phrase will bring you a host of web pages from anti-Zionist sites on that same theme: the Jews regard themselves as the light unto the nations, therefore they should act like it. It is brought as a reply to the charge of singling Israel out (“You call yourselves the chosen people, so you deserve to be singled out”). It goes as far back as Gandhi in 1938:
Let the Jews, who claim to be the chosen race, prove their title by choosing the way of non-violence for vindicating their position on earth.
Note that the good Hindu teacher is telling us how to be the chosen people. But considering that he said, “Hitler killed five million [sic] Jews. It is the greatest crime of our time. But the Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher's knife. They should have thrown themselves into the sea from cliffs. It would have aroused the world and the people of Germany. As it is they succumbed anyway in their millions”, and further led the Hindus themselves to disaster, to having their lands stolen by the Muslims (now called Pakistan and Bangladesh) after a bloodbath, because of his delusion that the Muslims could be approached with the same non-violent tactics as worked with the British, Gandhi’s words are not worthy to be taken seriously. But the sentiment goes on today, and most recently I saw it in use on a Daily Kos comment (screenshot):
Sorry, sick and tired of both sides pointing fingers and saying "you first.
Somebody has to be the adult, and it may as well be the "light unto nations."
People, then, who do not believe in the words of the Torah and the Prophets—indeed many of them do not believe in G-d at all—are all too eager to enlist His scriptures against His people. We can now see that it was for this reason that G-d gave us at Sinai not only the Written Torah but also the Oral Torah; that G-d not only gave His prophecies to His prophets, but also the correct interpretation of them to the rabbis. Private interpretation of His scriptures can lead anywhere; Jewish orthodoxy consists in following the Oral Torah and the rabbinical commentaries, and all other interpretations are unorthodox and therefore can be considered a twisting of the scriptures.
With that view in mind, let us review the two places in Isaiah where the phrase comes from. G-d says, through His prophet Isaiah, in 42:6:
I the LORD have called thee in righteousness, and have taken hold of thy hand, and kept thee, and set thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the nations;
And in 49:6:
Yea, He saith: ‘It is too light a thing that thou shouldest be My servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the offspring of Israel; I will also give thee for a light of the nations, that My salvation may be unto the end of the earth.’
The whole verses do not support what the anti-Zionists say; their context is even less supportive. The anti-Zionists’ argument, then, rests upon the yanking of the phrase, the mere phrase, that single phrase, out of all its surroundings—the textbook method of twisting anyone’s words, not just G-d’s. So the suspicion should begin even before reading the rabbinical commentaries. Now to the commentaries (which, remember, are the only interpretations of scripture acceptable to G-d), which prove to be absolutely devastating to the anti-Zionist’s case.
Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi) says of Isaiah 42:6:
And so you will be also a light unto the nations, as He said, “And nations shall go [according] to your light”; the light is the Torah, which will be unto them from Zion.
Zion is Jerusalem, of course, which the “international community” says should be an international city at best, the capital of “Palestine” at worst. Note how Radak’s interpretation goes against the moralistic twisting of the Marxists: they think “light unto the nations” means merely a good human example to follow, leading to social improvement in a natural way, but Radak says it means, “divine light”, it means that the existence and sovereignty of G-d will be proved to all the nations through His people.
Metzudat David says of Isaiah 42:6:
(On “a light of the nations”) To illuminate the eyes of all the nations to know HaShem is G-d.
Not a word about Jews needing to be the first to make concessions to their enemies. Not a word about how the nation of Israel behaves toward other nations. Not one tiny admonishment against “stealing the lands of others” (perhaps because the same G-d says the lands are ours). It is all about giving the non-Jews irrefutable proof that the G-d of Israel is the only true deity and that He, not the pagan deities or the Marxist “materialistic dialectic”, as described in the Torah, not as in the Koran or in any New Age feel-good tract channeled in a spiritualist séance, is the true Lord of All Creation. That’s what the Jews’ being a light unto the nations is all about.
Radak says of Isaiah 49:6:
(On “I will also give thee for a light of the nations”) Its interpretation is that your [Isaiah’s] prophecies will in future be a light unto nations, who, upon seeing them being fulfilled, will return to the way of good and will spread light through you to be My salvation to the end of the earth, for in the oath of Israel the nations too will be saved after the wars of Gog and Magog.
Amazing: this is not only a slap at the detractors of Zionism, this gives a whipping to the antiwar crowd as well. “The nations too will be saved after the wars of Gog and Magog”—in other words, all those EU-UN-uchs’ efforts at bringing peace through diplomatic solutions will come to naught, and true peace will come only after G-d, by means of Mashiach Ben David, rids the world of the wicked (speedily in our days, amen).
Metzudat David says of Isaiah 49:6:
(On “I will also give thee”) But I will add to you [Isaiah] one more great gift, in that I will make you prophesy and send the message of the deliverance that will be in the future then, My salvation from one end of the earth to the other, for all will be saved in the salvation of HaShem.
Again the message of salvation to the world. Two things are of note here: first, contrary to the anti-Zionist view that “the Jews declared themselves the Chosen People in order to benefit from it and rule over all the other nations”, G-d says here that all the nations will be blessed in Israel’s blessing. Secondly, the light unto the nations is in this commentary the prophet Isaiah, who brings unto the nations the true formula for real, everlasting peace, to a world that looks toward the UN to bring “peace, peace”, but, of course, “there is no peace”, there are only pieces of paper being waved, not actual peace.
Conclusion: the light unto nations is the Jews or the prophet Isaiah, both because of the divine message they give to humanity, not because of their human social efforts. The Jews are the light unto nations in that, by observing the events concerning them, one cannot avoid the conclusion that HaShem is true. Prophet Isaiah, in contrast to the false prophets of peace, the Neville Chamberlains of our day, is the light unto the nations in that, by believing in his message and following his exhortations, one knows what the way to peace is and what only pretends to be such.
These are G-d’s word and His sanctioned interpretations. May the anti-Zionists repent, so that His judgment upon those who twist His words to evil ends may not be poured upon them. Shabbat Shalom.