Lighting Up the Word

Rabbi Yossy Goldman

Rabbi Yossy Goldman

A fellow was shipwrecked on a faraway island and barely managed to survive. Finally, after a long time, a ship passed by, and he managed to attract its attention. Some sailors in a small boat came to rescue him. But before he boarded, the officer in charge said, “Here’s a few recent newspapers. First, have a look at what’s going on in the world and then you can decide if you really want to rejoin civilization.”

After the ghastly Oct. 7 massacre in Israel, instead of being condemned, the monstrous perpetrators are championed around the world. A “court of justice” seeks to tie the hands of the victims who have responded in self-defense. The entire Middle East powder keg is in danger of blowing up any minute. There’s also a raging war in Ukraine and trouble spots dot the landscape of the entire world. Antisemitism is exploding internationally on a level not seen since the Holocaust.

Our generation is so lacking in wisdom, morality, logic and level-headedness that one can only wonder if any sound leadership will ever emerge. Maybe we should all find a quiet little island to escape to.

But we have been taught that it’s our mission on earth to change the world for the good. No matter how evil or corrupt society may be, it’s our job to make a difference. Call it tikkun olam or a “Light unto the Nations,” but we are here to make a positive difference.
But how? We are small and the world is big. The task seems so monumental and overwhelming as to be an impossible dream.

So let me tell you a true story.

Last week’s Torah portion, Terumah, recounts that, back in the wilderness, Moses was instructed by God to build the sanctuary and all its sacred vessels: the ark, altar, table, menorah and more.

The menorah, the golden candelabra, was to be constructed from one solid piece of gold, hammered out and sculpted with many decorations on each branch.

The intricate design of the menorah puzzled the great leader. So, according to the Midrash, God told Moses: “Don’t worry. You just throw a piece of gold into the fire, and I will do the rest.”

Miraculously, the beautifully designed menorah came out of the fire. This explains why the Torah uses the word tayaseh, “shall the menorah be made,” a passive tense, rather than “shall you make the menorah.” It does so because Moshe didn’t actually make the menorah himself. Rather, it was made for him by God.

But was fashioning the menorah really so difficult and complicated? Betzalel, Moses’s chief designer, was a master craftsman. Much of the work in the sanctuary required exceptional skills and creative talent, but the workers still managed to do it. Indeed, the cover of the ark with the winged cherubs was also made of one solid piece of gold. Why did the menorah, in particular, present such a quandary for Moses?

My saintly teacher and mentor, the Rebbe, shared a profound interpretation: Moshe was not so perplexed by the physical instructions for building the candelabra as he was by its stated mission — to illuminate the world. The light of the menorah was to symbolically light up the entire world, far beyond the confines of the sanctuary. The seven-branched candelabra corresponded to the seven continents of the world and its light was to reach them all.

So, Moses pondered: “The world is so full of darkness, paganism and depravity. Barbaric nations surround us — Egyptians, Canaanites, Amalekites. How will a little candelabra illuminate so much darkness?”

Thus, God told Moses, “You put the gold in the fire, and I will do the rest.” This means: While you personally may not be able to change the world, remember that you are not alone. I will help you do it. I am with you. Your candelabra is not “made in China,” it is made by God. It is a Godly tool, a divine device, and God can achieve infinitely more than any human being.

And so it is today. Yes, it is a dark world. Dark and gloomy indeed. And it can be very depressing to all good people. The evil, the hate and the outpouring of such venom on the streets of the world’s capitals are all too much to bear. But always remember: You are not alone. Your efforts are not limited by your mortal constraints. God Himself empowers all decent and upright people with superhuman strength to defeat darkness and to light up the world with the power of good.

Some 125 million people watched the Super Bowl. Whether they were more interested in the football or Taylor Swift, I’m not sure. But for 30 seconds a ray of light pierced the noise, penetrated the escapist indifference and shone a courageous message of decency and dignity — of virtue, integrity and sensitivity. It made the world stop, think and take notice of what is right and what is wrong. Thank you, Robert Kraft, for spreading so much light.

The “Ethics of the Fathers” teaches us, “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” We may not be able to finish the task of changing the whole world, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. If every individual did his or her share, who knows how much we might achieve? One good deed goes a long way. Every Shabbat candle helps banish the darkness.

Whatever corner of the world we brighten, it will help illuminate the entire world. It is a gargantuan effort, but God is with us.

Rabbi Yossy Goldman is life rabbi emeritus of Sydenham Shul in Johannesburg, president of the South African Rabbinical Association and an author.


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