I am a big fan of oxford commas. Really, I’m a fan of commas in general, but oxford commas are great. In case you’re not a punctuation-nerd like me: oxford commas are used when listing items, which is one reason they can also be called a serial comma. It is grammatically correct to put a comma between items in a list (Example: When I go to the supermarket, I need to buy grapes, paper towels, coffee, and chocolate). That last comma, the one that goes between the penultimate item (coffee) and the last item (chocolate), is called an oxford comma. It’s stylistic and optional, and I always opt for its use. I like it because it helps the reader know specifically what the writer intended, rather than assuming previous knowledge of the items. It goes along the lines of a common grammar joke where commas save lives. “Let’s eat, Grandma” and “Let’s eat Grandma” have very different meanings! Pronunciation helps us to understand the true meaning of the sentence, but if you’re reading that meaning can get lost. It’s helpful to be specific.
That’s one of the many reasons the ancient Masorites created the vowel and trope systems that accompany our study of TaNaCh (the Hebrew bible). When we prepare to read from the Torah scroll or study the text, we usually use a vocalized version. Without those systems we would rely on implicit context clues to know if Alef, Shin, Reish (אשר) is pronounced AHsher (the name of one of the children of Jacob) or ahSHER (a pronoun meaning “that” or “whom”). Vowels and Trope make the text more memorable, sure, but we cannot discount their use in knowing punctuation and pronunciation and understanding of our ancient text.
But Hebrew can only go so far in using grammar to help us understand meaning. Our Haftarah portion of the week comes from the book of Isaiah, where the prophet uses the metaphor of light to reassure his people that God’s protection and compassion persist for them even in a time of physical and spiritual exile. He begins “Kumi ori ki vah orech, u’chvod Adonai aliyich zarach,” “Arise, shine for your light has dawned; The Presence of the Lord has shone upon you!” For anyone familiar with the 5th verse of Lecha Dodi (a verse not part of our usual custom at Temple Jeremiah) you might recognize this line as it speaks to the image of Shabbat and the light she provides.
Curiously, the translator of this Isaiah verse has made a very specific choice only noticeable in the grammar of the verse. The JPS commentary says, “Arise, shine for your light has dawned; The Presence of the Lord has shone upon you!” but another choice could have been, “Arise, shine for Your light has dawned; The Presence of the Lord has shone upon you!” Whereas Hebrew doesn’t have capital or lowercase letters, English does. Here, the translator has chosen the light that dawns to belong to the lowercase you, rather than the capital You – to belong to the anonymous human reader, rather than to God.
This Haftarah portion is one of a series called the Haftarot of Consolation – the portions we read between the mourning holiday of Tisha B’Av (commemorating the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem) and the celebration holiday of Rosh HaShanah (the start of our Jewish year). For seven weeks we’re comforted and build-up by the words of our prophets, reminding us of God’s presence and care, and our ability to repent and return. For seven weeks our texts remind us that God’s light still shines for us, even in the dark times.
But here it is not God’s light that shines, it is ours.
Isaiah is giving us instructions to get up and shine. He acknowledges that darkness exists and persists in the world, but our affirmation of our own radiance is what tempers the oppressive dark. More than that, we also become the reflection of God’s light for the rest of the world and strengthen those around us by example.
Isaiah might not have been writing specifically with us in mind, but we absolutely need his message today. I don’t need to list the events and developments of our time that make the world feel darker and darker. We all know them. We all feel them. It feels nearly impossible to fight against the daily deluge of darkness. But Isaiah and our translator tell us, that we are not powerless. Simply by changing one “Y” into a “y” power and purpose are put back into our own control. We need not wait for God’s saving light to find us in the shadows, we need only to remember that we can make our own. When we stand up for our principles, speak out for those who have lost their voice, defend the vulnerable, and work for a better world – our light shines brighter. When we show those who live in darkness that we can shine, they find their own ways to shine as well. In the words of the poet Marianne Williamson, “as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”
These weeks of consolation tell us that it might not be easy to fight off the darkness, but it is worth it. And it is a cornerstone of Jewish identity. Like so many others in the world, like too many others, we are familiar with the dark, and yet we still find ways to shine. Over the next few weeks, we’ll celebrate together, from near and far, and welcome a new year with new potential. Each of these moments, each of our Jewish holidays, begins as darkness sets in. Perhaps one reason our holidays begin at night is to teach us that one seemingly insignificant act brings with it unending potential. Whether with a flick of the wrist we light a candle, or with the stroke of a key we interpret a prophetic message we know, little things matter. Together we can make those little things shine.