There's an old saying that 'a Jew should be a lamplighter'. Sounds simple enough - we need to spread light, help others and make the world a better, holier, kinder place. In truth, it's a very moving, innovative and inspiring message that should be posted to every school bulletin board.

But first, let's take a closer look at the word 'lamplighter' - more specifically the word 'light', and its grammatical relation to 'brilliance':

Languages are fascinating. They are far more than simple translations of the same word over and over. Languages are filled with nuance, emotion, expression and culture, and often serve as a strong representation of the people who speak them. The history of a language can often be traced to the beginnings of a people, country and way of life, progressing and evolving with the people who shaped it.

English is a bit more difficult to trace, for it is a hodgepodge of Germanic, Celtic and Latin influences, resulting from the many cultures who ruled the British isles where English originated. Old English was primarily Germanic, Middle English was heavily Latin due to the Norman/French conquest of England by William the Conqueror in 1066, and Modern English came with the industrial revolution and the rise of the USA. English words can therefore be traced back to any one of these roots: 'tailor' coming from the French 'taille' (size), 'through' from the German 'durch' and even 'behemoth' from the Hebrew 'behemot' (animals).

One English word that makes for an interesting study is the word 'brilliance', rooted in the French 'briller', or 'shine'. What do brilliance and shining/light have to do with each other?

While brilliance is generally used to describe sheer intellectual muscle, true brilliance is more about 'turning on the light'; seeing what others cannot yet see, discovering what others have not yet discovered. Once the light is turned on, then anyone can see. But to turn on the light, that takes strength, it takes brilliance. Thus, brilliance and light are closely related, if not one and the same.

Now, back to our 'lamplighter' proverb. When the lamp is already lit, when the high standard is already set, it's much easier to follow. If, say, respecting human rights is an already recognized virtue, it's much easier to subscribe to it. But to be the 'lamplighter', the one who introduces the virtue to a still ignorant world - that takes courage, that takes brilliance.

When we get up in the morning and see a world with people who might not be the kindest, or news that might not be heartening, let's not follow them downwards. Let's lead them upwards, and be the first one to take a step in the right direction. Smile even if no one is. Be the first one to help someone who no one wants to help, be the first to do a Mitzvah or study Torah. Be a leader. Be a lamplighter.

Rabbi Avrohom