Shabbat in 16th-century Safed must have been a mind-blower. Reading the historical documents of this era and the exploits of the Safed mystics transports one to another universe. The rabbis of this mystical city used to usher in the Sabbath out in the field with tremendous fervor and emotion. One can only imagine the throng of rabbis in flowing beards and white tunics, their feet barely touching the ground, dancing with the angels in a circle as the sun was setting. The Sabbath Queen was never more palpable than amid the beauty and mystery of this magical place and time. We try to recapture that magic every time we sing “Lecha Dodi,” the Friday night hymn written by one of these mystics, Rabbi Shlomo HaLevi Alkebetz (d. 1580).
One of the stanzas of “Lecha Dodi” begins with the words: “To the right and to the left shall you spread forth.” Reuven Kimelman, professor of classical rabbinic literature at Brandeis University, has extensively researched the mystical theology of this song and many of the esoteric messages embedded within it. He explains that Rabbi Alkebetz and his colleagues very much believed in the central role that the Jewish people played in sanctifying the other nations and bringing them to a state of monotheistic righteousness. Spreading forth to “the right and to the left” is a reference to the influence that the Jewish people have exerted and continue to exert on Judaism’s two younger cousins, Islam and Christianity.
Islam is called the “right side” because Muslims are alleged descendants of Ishmael, Abraham’s first-born son. Abraham was famous for being a man of chesed (kindness), which in kabbalistic lore is referred to as the right side of man. Christianity is called the “left side” because modern-day Christians descend from the ancient Romans, who, according to the Talmud, are descended from Isaac’s first-born son, Esau. Isaac was famous for being a man of justice and might, which in kabbalistic texts is referred to as man’s left side.
“Lecha Dodi,” therefore, presents a prayer that as we enter the holiest day of the week, the Sabbath, may our holiness emanate outward, not just being contained within our own people, but spilling over and “infecting” our Christian and Muslim brethren.
At the opening of our Torah portion, God promises the Jewish people that in exchange for hearkening to His rules for an ethical society, He will preserve for us the “covenant [brit] and the kindness [chesed]” that was promised to our forefathers (Deuteronomy 7:12).
One of the Chasidic masters explained that Jews aren’t the only ones who have great ancestors. After all, Ishmael (Muslims) and Esau (Christians) are also descended from Abraham and Isaac, so why shouldn’t God preserve a covenant for them as well? Esau argued that he was Isaac’s first-born and, therefore, the first-born “covenant” was rightfully his. Ishmael argued that he was Abraham’s first son; thus he, and not Isaac, was the rightful heir to his father’s “kindness.”
The response to both Esau and Ishmael is that the Jewish people have a special role within a world of multitudinous nations and beliefs. We are supposed to be an exemplar and teacher of social justice and righteousness. When we fulfill our role of being “a light unto the nations,” we gain an advantage over the other descendants of Abraham and Isaac who were not given this role. Only when we succeed in sanctifying the rest of mankind, can we stake a greater claim to our ancestors’ “covenant” and “kindness.”
The Torah thus only guarantees the Jews that special ancestral bond when we are committed to educating the world about social justice and ethics. Because we educate the rest of mankind, we are granted privilege over the other descendants of the same patriarchs.
Admittedly, our beacons have shined that light of morality to the world with inconsistency; sometimes our lights have been bright, other times they have been lackluster. But we can certainly take pride in having brought ethical monotheism to the rest of the Western World, in the guise of Judaism’s offspring, Christianity and Islam. On Shabbat, we pray that we always rise to our calling to be that beacon of morality and ethics to mankind, and that we, together with our Muslim and Christian brothers and sisters, will be able to worship God in peace together.
Ironically, the Sabbath eve, the moment in time that represents the intimate bond between God and Israel alone, is the time to pray for success in spreading our holiness to the rest of the world and bringing mankind closer to that inner circle with God. May our good works among the family of man help get our prayer answered.
Rabbi Korobkin is rosh kehilla of Yavneh Hebrew Academy, a community mohel, and provides synagogue services to Orthodox Union synagogues.