Bereshit: Blindness and Light

Torah Portion: Bereshit

Good afternoon!

I wish I could say I’ve been on some study sabbatical or world-wide adventure recently, out of wi-fi range and thus unable to post Torah commentaries, but . . well, that wouldn’t be true. With mid-week holidays it’s been beyond me to get it all done and get a drasha written too, so here’s hoping we’re back for the new cycle of Torah readings starting this week.

This week’s Torah portion is the first of the new year, Bereshit, or “in the beginning,” including the creation story and the expulsion from Eden. The haftarah, or prophetic reading, continues the themes of both creation and light (remember, light is the first thing created in Genesis 1.) The prophet proclaims that, just as the world was created for a particular purpose, the people Israel was also created with the intention that Israel shall be a light for the nations:

I created you, and appointed you

A covenant people, a light of nations —

Opening blind eyes,

Rescuing prisoners from confinement,

From the dungeon those who sit in darkness. (Isaiah 42:6-7)

Now, there are various views (hardly a surprise) about who exactly is the prisoner in darkness, and what it means to be a “light of” (or “light to,” or “light for”) the nations, but the simplest meaning seems to be that the people Israel is meant to bring light, meaning hope or goodness or justice- to those who are suffering, either our own Israelite tribes who were in exile at the time of the prophet or perhaps the nations of the word at large.* Just as the creation of nature is purposeful and meaningful in the Torah portion, so is the creation of a covenant people (which is not to say there couldn’t be more than one nation with a purpose or mission.)

On the other hand, if Israel is created to serve God by bringing light. . . . well, there’s a problem:

Who is so blind as My servant,

So deaf as the messenger I send?

Who is so blind as the chosen one,

So blind as the servant of the Lord? (ibid verse 19)

The text goes on to offer hope to the people for a future redemption and ingathering of exiles (again, perhaps it is the exiles who are in metaphorical darkness and confinement), but I’m struck by the contrast between the earlier verse saying Israel is to be a light to the blind, and this verse, saying Israel itself is like one who is blind, which in context seems to mean blind to its own mission, teaching and hope.

The simplest reading of the prophet’s message is that, although Israel falls short in its mission and spiritual purpose, nevertheless, God will eventually bring light for, or perhaps by means of the people Israel, in the form of a redemption from exile and bringing justice among the nations. That’s a great message and one we certainly need today: although the Jewish people is radically imperfect, often focused on its own internecine conflicts and institutional competitions, nevertheless we can be the instrument of a healing purpose, a flawed vessel for light and hope.

So one message is: don’t give up on our community just because it seems to fall so short of its ideals. Yet another message speaks very personally: we all might aspire to be servants of a holy purpose, but “who is so blind as the servant of the Lord?” In other words: be holy, but be humble. We all have blind spots, truths we don’t want to hear (who is so deaf as the messenger I send?), hypocrisies that others see which we don’t acknowledge in ourselves and even outright self-delusions, something no person can fully avoid.

In the end, I think the haftarah imparts a tremendous challenge: pick yourself up and be a light to the world, despite your failings and imperfections. Embrace the holy ideals for which you were created- but don’t forget that working towards holy ends does not mean divine perfection for messy, frail, confused human beings. We must be exalted in our aims but humble in our self-conception. If we aren’t exalted in our aims- to bring light to the world!- we stumble along in the darkness of complacency and exile from our truest selves. If we aren’t humble in our self-conception, religion can be itself a tool to bring great darkness; we are light, and we are sometimes blind, and knowing both is our truest hope.  

Shabbat Shalom,


*See here for more on these different possibilities and here for my earlier thoughts on the connection between the portion and haftarah.

The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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