Judaism has many lights. The lights that we kindle on Friday night. Yahrzeit lights, the light of Havdalah, and of course the Hanukah lights. All are Judaism’s lights. But none is the one that earns the moniker נר ד’ – God’s light. That designation is reserved for something else.
In a habit as old as time itself, every tribe, every people, seeks to isolate the one or two traits or qualities that define that tribe’s, that people’s essential nature. It is true that the habit has a downside. Over the course of human history it has frequently led nations to the invariably mistaken belief that these noble qualities are not found among others, a belief which then fuels dangerous forms of chauvinism and ultimately legitimizes unconscionable deeds. That having been said, there is also considerable value to this old habit as well. For when a people explicitly identifies its essential qualities, it is implicitly challenging itself, and challenging each of its constituent members to strive hard to embody these qualities. Proclaiming “This is who we are; this is what we are”, is a powerful means for bringing out the best in one’s folks.
We, the Jewish people, have engaged in this too. In several places, the Talmud lists the essential qualities that make us the Jewish people, implicitly charging us to live up to them. What essential Jewish qualities would you guess the Talmud came up with? Wisdom? It’s not a bad guess, as it written, רק עם חכם ונבון הגוי הגדול הזה. But that’s not it. Rugged stubbornness? Yes, we are the עורף עם קשה but this too is not the Talmud’s answer. It’s not even the capacity to stand alone against the world – though the verse עם לבדד ישכון praises our ability to so when necessary.
When our Sages looked to define who we are and what we are, this is what they said:
שלשה סימנים יש באומה זו הרחמנים והביישנין וגומלי חסדים
There are three distinguishing marks of this nation, the Jewish people. They are merciful, they are sincerely humble, and they perform acts of kindness.
Rambam codified this statement as Halacha in several places in his Mishna Torah:
(Issurei Biah 19:17)
כֵן כָּל מִי שֶׁיֵּשׁ בּוֹ עַזּוּת פָּנִים אוֹ אַכְזָרִיּוּת וְשׂוֹנֵא אֶת הַבְּרִיּוֹת וְאֵינוֹ גּוֹמֵל לָהֶם חֶסֶד חוֹשְׁשִׁין לוֹ בְּיוֹתֵר שֶׁמָּא גִּבְעוֹנִי הוּא. שֶׁסִּימָנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הָאֻמָּה הַקְּדוֹשָׁה בַּיְשָׁנִין רַחֲמָנִים וְגוֹמְלֵי חֲסָדִים.
(Gifts to the poor 10:1)
חַיָּבִין אָנוּ לְהִזָּהֵר בְּמִצְוַת צְדָקָה יוֹתֵר מִכָּל מִצְוֹת עֲשֵׂה. שֶׁהַצְּדָקָה סִימָן לַצַּדִּיק זֶרַע אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ “
וְאֵין הָאַכְזָרִיּוּת וְהָעַזּוּת מְצוּיָה אֶלָּא בְּעַכּוּ”ם עוֹבְדֵי עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה אֲבָל … יִשְׂרָאֵל שֶׁהִשְׁפִּיעַ לָהֶם הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא טוֹבַת הַתּוֹרָה וְצִוָּה אוֹתָם בְּחֻקִּים וּמִשְׁפָּטִים צַדִּיקִים רַחְמָנִים הֵם עַל הַכּל. וְכֵן בְּמִדּוֹתָיו שֶׁל הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא שֶּׁצִּוָּנוּ לְהִדָּמוֹת בָּהֶם הוּא אוֹמֵר (תהילים קמה ט) “וְרַחֲמָיו עַל כָּל מַעֲשָׂיו“..
You have to admire the tactical brilliance of the Talmudic tradition in choosing these as our essential aspirational qualities. The Talmud – in the second and third centuries – is operating against a backdrop of no small amount of anti-Jewish hostility that’s out there in the world. And it presumes that Jewish history will continue to generate within us ample emotional, intellectual and even moral justification to be suspicious of those outside of tribe, indifferent toward their needs, and to focus of all our efforts, energy, and emotional capital inward. And so, it davka insists that the qualities of compassion, humility, and kindness to all of God’s creations, are the qualities that make us who we are, and that if we were to abandon them, we would cease to be worthy of our name, worthy of our God.
We are lucky and blessed to be living in a time and in a land in which anti-Semitism is not a feature of our daily, personal routine; it isn’t an obstacle that stands in the way of our reaching our best Talmudic Jewish selves. The great head wind today, is something else. It’s the prevailing, pervasive, and pernivious social and political culture “out there”, of denunciation, mockery, and civic warfare. We’ve all been affected by it, and have been changed by it. We’re all more condescending and sarcastic, quicker to go on the attack, slower to listen and to engage. Not by conscious decision, God forbid, just through daily exposure to zeitgeist. And we’re drifting. Drifting from Yahadut, from the qualities of Jewishness that are so basic that we really aren’t Jews without them: instinctive compassion, reflexive humility, indomitable kindness – like Avraham’s.
Yet, there’s every reason to have confidence in our ability to reroot ourselves. Because in the end we are way too stiff-necked a people to be torn from our moorings by prevailing cultural winds. We are way too willing to be a people that dwells alone, that is countercultural, one that champions civility rather than warfare in debate, and which religiously extends kindness to God’s creation. And we are way too wise a people to think that anything good will ultimately come from interminable line-drawing, labeling, and confrontation.
שלשה סימנים יש באומה זו הרחמנים והביישנין וגומלי חסדים
This is who and what we are, when are truly ourselves.
Judaism has many lights. But only one is identified as the light of God. נר ד’ נשמת אדם. The light of God, is the soul of the human being. The light of God exists neither as particles nor as waves. It is not on the visible spectrum. The light of God is seen and felt in only one way. Through the religiously inspired soul of the human being. The kind of soul which sees the sorrow of another, and runs to bring comfort. Sees the anxiety of another, and offers an ear that listens and a heart that feels. One that senses the potential for strife, and projects the humility that is the trademark of peacemaker. This is how the light of God manifest. Through the compassionate, humble, and kind human soul.
Every Friday night we recite the Mishna that asks, במה מדליקין …..?. It’s a question about materials, about oils and wicks. The same question is of course also asked concerning the lights of Hanukkah. And as important as it is to use the right kind of oils and wicks, the ultimate question we think about as we light is not “which oils and wicks will produce a fitting Chanukah light?”, rather which qualities of the soul will produce the light of God?” We are blessed with one more night to go.
כִּֽי־אַ֭תָּה תָּאִ֣יר נֵרִ֑י ה’, אֱ֝לֹקי יַגִּ֥יהַּ חָשְׁכִּֽי׃
It is You who lights my lamp; the LORD, my God, lights up my darkness