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Light Unto the Nations

Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16 )

by Rabbi Zev Leff

Why was it important that Jewish people find favor in the eyes of the Egyptians?

"The Israelites [also] did as Moses had said. They requested silver and gold articles and clothing from the Egyptians. God made the Egyptians respect the people, and they granted their request. [The Israelites] thus drained Egypt of its wealth." (Exodus 12:35-36)

Prior to the Exodus, God caused the Jews to find favor in the eyes of the Egyptians. The immediate reason for this was so that the Egyptians would readily offer their vessels of gold and silver to the Israelites, in fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham that his descendants would leave their servitude with great wealth. But if that were God's only intention, it would have been sufficient to cause the Egyptians to give over their wealth out of fear of the Israelites.

We must, therefore, seek another explanation for the miracle of the Jews finding favor in the eyes of the Egyptians (see Nachmanides to Exodus 11:3) - i.e., some reason why it made a difference whether the Egyptians loved and respected us or merely feared us.

Throughout our exile we have been mocked, hated and killed by the nations of the world. We have had to strengthen ourselves not to concern ourselves with those who deride us because of our service to God (see Rema to Code of Jewish Law, OC 1:1). There is a danger, however that this state of affairs will be seen as being the way things are meant to be, that we will view the mockery to which we are subjected as an indication of the perfection of our service of God.

The Torah teaches us that the opposite is true:

"Learn and observe [the Torah] for it is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations, who will hear of all these laws and proclaim that this is truly a great, wise and understanding nation." (Deut. 4:6)

It is clear that the Torah attaches importance to the respect given us by the nations of the world.

The Netziv writes (Ha'amek Davar to Numbers 14:21) that the goal of creation is that God's glory fill the entire earth - i.e., that all human beings recognize Him. As we proclaim twice daily in the Shema, our perception of the oneness of God will only be complete when God, Who is acknowledged now only by the Jewish people, will be the one God recognized by the entire world:

"When God will be King over the whole world, on that day will He be One and His Name one." (Zechariah 14 9)

This acknowledgment of God by the nations of the world is so important that the miracle of the splitting of the Sea was performed in order that "the Egyptians should know that I am God" (Exodus 7:5). Ibn Ezra adds that the Egyptians referred to were those who drowned. Thus the Splitting of the Sea was warranted even for the few seconds of recognition of God by the drowning Egyptians. The World to Come is not limited to Jews; the righteous gentile, who observes the seven Mitzvot incumbent upon him as Divine imperatives, also merits Olam Haba.

We, the Nation of Priests, represent God to the world by our exemplary lifestyle, and imbue the world with knowledge of His existence:

"We are a light unto the nations." (Isaiah 42:6)

The Netziv explains that this function could have been achieved by the Jewish people settling in Israel and inspiring the entire world through an awareness of the miraculous Divine Providence that guides the Jew in his land. We did not merit this. As a consequence, it became necessary to spread the knowledge of God by living among the nations and causing them to witness how we sacrifice ourselves for God's Name. Our survival as a solitary lamb among 70 hungry wolves points to the existence of a Divine Creator, whose Divine Providence guides and protects His nation.

Jewish law consistently exhorts us to act in a way which will effect a sanctification of the Divine Name, and thereby brings us respect as a holy and upright people. We are forbidden to desecrate God's Name by giving non-Jews reason to castigate us for conduct unbefitting a holy nation (see Code of Jewish Law CM 266 regarding returning lost articles to a non-Jew). Sanctification of God's Name is a facet of the Mitzvah of love of God. Maimonides in Sefer HaMitzvos writes that this Mitzvah includes an imperative to call out to all mankind to serve God and acknowledge Him.

The Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 6) says, " 'And he is a witness,' this refers to the Jewish people, as it says, 'You are my witnesses, says God, and I am your Lord...' If you will not testify, you will carry His sin." If you do not relate My existence to the nations, says God, I will exact punishment from you. The nations of the world should ideally function in unison with us to proclaim and acknowledge the Creator.

We bring 70 sacrifices on Sukkot for the benefit of the 70 nations, yet we bring them in descending order to intimate that the nations should decrease. There is no contradiction in this. The need for 70 distinct nations is only a result of the Tower of Babel at which mankind united to deny God. As a consequence, God created divisions among them to thwart this attempt to countermand the purpose of man. The ideal, however, is that mankind should unite in the service of God. As the prophet Zephaniah proclaims:

"Then will I return to the nations a clear language so that they can all call on the Name of God and serve Him in unison." (Zephaniah 3:9)

As God's representatives, we must ultimately command the respect and favor of the nations of the world in order to fill the world with His glory. That occurs, says Rashi, only when we fulfill the Mitzvot properly. A Mitzvah fulfilled properly is Godly and perfect, and can only command respect and admiration. If we fail to perform the Mitzvot properly, however, then we will be considered fools. Derision and mockery will be our lot, for the portion of the Mitzvah improperly performed is not Divine and therefore elicits ridicule that then spreads and encompasses the entire Mitzvah.

The Sages explain that the verse, "All nations of the earth will see that God's Name has been called upon you and will respect and fear you," refers to the Tefillin placed on the head. The Vilna Gaon added that this means not just the Tefillin on the head but the Tefillin in the head - i.e. the internalized intention with which the Mitzvah is performed.

The scorn of the nations of the world is not a sign of our perfection, but rather that something is lacking in our service of God, that we have failed in our role of leading a life of holiness separate from the nations and their lifestyles. The metaphysical law that "Esav hates Yaakov" guards us against the possibility of assimilation and spiritual self-destruction. But when we fulfill our role properly, the entire world will want to share in our service of God.

Prior to our first redemption - the model of the final redemption to come - God brought us favor in the Egyptians' eyes, so that we would not forget this ideal. The Egyptians readily gave us vessels of gold and silver to enhance our service to God in the desert. The clothing they gave us represented the honor and glory in which they wished to garb us. And so it will be in the final redemption.

May we merit, through our meticulous performance of the Mitzvot, the respect, honor, and admiration of the entire world, rather than the mockery and abuse that is our current lot. Then all nations will follow our lead in serving God and bringing the world to perfection.

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