Book of Numbers
June 9, 2017
“Let the seven lamps give light at the front of the menorah”
“This Little Light Of Mine (I’m Gonna Let It Shine)”
-Harry Dixon Loes
In the early 1920’s Harry Dixon Loes, a student at the Moody Bible Institute and the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, composed “This Little Light Of Mine” and other gospel songs for his local church. Most attribute the inspiration for the song to various passages in the New Testament (the gospel of Luke and Mathew, in particular). They are probably correct. However, I would like to believe this simple song, that became an anthem for the civil rights movement in the 1960’s, was inspired by the above verse from the Book of Numbers!
As a literary tool, Light is a metaphor for good, knowledge, enlightenment, moral uprightness, and just about anything that betters lives, communities, nations, and the world we live in. In pursuit of light, one must learn to contend with darkness. The key is to confront overwhelming darkness with our light from within and let it shine (with a nod to E.T.’s heart light!). It is probably for this reason the ancient Israelites were commanded to erect a seven-branch menorah (candelabra) and keep it lit 24/7. It would stand as a constant reminder of God’s presence in good times and in bad.
There is another way to understand the metaphorical importance of light to the lives of Jews. Numbers Rabbah, an ancient text of Jewish legends (midrash) asks why the menorah is such an important feature of the Israelites place of worship? They answer, “As I (God) shined a light on Israel, making them conspicuous among the nations, let them shine a light on Me.” Emet Ve-Emunah, the modern theological statement of the Conservative Movement of Judaism, writes, “[God’s covenant with the Jewish people] obligates us to build a just and compassionate society throughout the world and especially in the land of Israel where we may teach by both personal and collective example what it means to be a covenant people, a “light to the nations.”
By working to uplift the downtrodden, find shelter for the homeless, feed the hungry, and welcome the stranger we shine a light on God. And one final metaphor, in the words of Emma Lazarus, born in New York in 1849 to immigrants from Germany and Portugal:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
(words appearing on the Statue of Liberty)
Rabbi Howard Siegel