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Blog - Torah Insights

All It Takes Is One Small Candle

All It Takes Is One Small Candle  

I want to change.

Should I stop engaging in destructive behaviour abruptly, or should I gradually focus my effort on introducing positive behavior into my life? My eating habits are terrible. Should I cut out all the sugary and fatty foods all at once (what’s the point of eating a vegetable with one hand, while holding a bottle of Coke in the other?) - or should I slowly introduce broccoli and lettuce into my diet, increasing the healthy foods gradually. I want to write a book. Should I stop everything that I am doing and devote every minute of the next year to the task, or should I focus on writing for ten minutes each day?

I would like to climb out of my spiritual darkness.

I can put all my effort into stopping the negative behaviour, or I can recognize that, for the time being, I will not be able to stop sucumbing to my evil inclination, I should therefore put my effort into introducing productive activities into my routine, and over some time all the positivity in my life will eradicate the negativity.

This question is the logic behind the Talmudic dispute about the amount of lights kindled on each night of Chanukah. The house of Shammay maintain that on the first night of Chanukah we light eight candles, and then decrease one candle each passing night. While the house of Hillel maintain that on the first night we light one candle, and then increases one candle per night, until the eighth night, when all the candles are lit. As the Talmud explains:

Beis Shammai say: On the first day one lights eight and after that gradually reduce; but Beis Hillel say: On the first day one is lit and thereafter they are progressively increased. Ulla said: In the West [Israel] two Amoraim, Rabbi Yosi Bar Avin and Rabbi Yosi Bar Zevida, argue: One maintains: The reason of Beis Shammai is corresponding to the days still to come, and that of Beis Hillel is that it shall correspond to the days that are gone. But the other maintains: Beis Shammai's reason is that it shall correspond to the bulls of the Sukkos, whilst Beis Hillel's reason is that we rise in [matters of] sanctity but do not descend [1].

Let’s examine the second explanation. Shammay says we decrease corresponding to the bulls offered in the temple on Sukkot, and Hillel says we increase because, as a rule, we are meant to increase in holiness and not decrease. This requires additional explanation. According to Hillel, why the Torah command to decrease the amount of bulls offered each day of the holiday? does that not contradict his principle that we much increase in holiness? As for Shammai, does he not believe in the principle of increasing holiness?

Shammi and Hillel differ on the question of where to begin. 

Shammai says that the first thing you must do is fight your evil. Completely. When you want to fight the evil you can’t take baby steps. You have to come out swinging. You must tell yourself things like “I will never touch - fill in any destructive behavior - again”. If alcohol is your challenge, and you say “I’ll only have three drinks instead of four”, says Shammai, you will never win. Taking small steps in the right direction, argues Shammai, is like building a sand castle on a beach, it will be washed away by the first wave of the raging sea.

Therefore, says Shammai, on the first day of Chanukah you must kindle all your lights, as you need every ounce of energy to fight the evil. Here’s the good news: tomorrow it will be a bit easier. You weekend the evil on the first night, so there is less of it on the second, hence all you need on the second night is seven lights; eventually you will rid yourself of the darkness, and you won't need any light to fight the darkness.

Hillel says: forget the evil.

Perhaps in temple times we had the spiritual strength to battle the darkness head on. In exile, bereft of the spiritual power of the holy temple and the bulls of the Holiday, we need a new strategy altogether.

We need to focus on positive action.

Don’t worry about the darkness, just take one small step in the right direction. Just light one small candle. No big deal. Anyone can do it. The key, however, is that tomorrow you add a one more light. Small but consistent growth. Before you know it your Menorah will be full [2].     

 


 

[1] Talmud Shabbat 21b.

[2] Igros Kodesh (letters from the Rebbe), Vol 1 page 79. 

Tamar And Her Twins

The Torah is obviously fascinated with twins. Every time twins are born, we hear every detail of the birth; as if we are the grandparents who are desperate to hear about every step of the labor and delivery. 

When Tamar gave birth to her twins, the Torah gives us this detailed description:

While she was in labor, one [of the babies] stuck out his hand [from the womb]. The midwife took a scarlet thread and tied it on his hand to signify, "This one emerged first." [The baby then withdrew his hand.]

But as soon as he withdrew his hand, his brother emerged, and [his mother] said, "With what vigor have you pushed yourself ahead!" So [Judah] named him Peretz ["breaking through"].

Then his brother, who had the scarlet thread on his hand, emerged, and Judah named him Zerach ["shining"][1].

Why do we need to know that the one stretched out his hand, pulled it back, and the other burst ahead and emerged first? Why do we have to know that the midwife tied a crimson thread on his hand because she thought that he will be born first? What message is the Torah conveying?

The Two Paths

There are two paths we can walk on our journey on this planet.

We Can walk the bright and shiny path. We can strive to never succumb to evil temptation, and to always make the right choices.

Or we can take the more tricky path. We can follow our heart even when it directs us to places our mind cautions us to stay away from. Those of us taking this second path will make mistakes.

Like Tamar we will lose our innocence. We will probably cause pain to ourselves and to the people who love us. We may even reach a place of total spiritual darkness, a place where we can no longer hear the whispering voice of our G-dly soul trying to direct us back to the path of life.

And then we burst forward.

We are not sure where we get the strength from. We are not sure if and how we will able to rebuild our shattered relationships, if we will have the strength of character to sustain the push forward and to escape old habits. But we burst forward and push ahead. And do all it takes to make it to where we need to be.

And then we discover, that taking the second path has its advantages.

While it is not the “firstborn” path, while that is not the path G-d wants us to choose, while at the outset we should have taken the first path, we nevertheless come out ahead in the game of life. For the journey through the raging sea of life forced us to dig deeper, to mine our soul for spiritual courage, and to discover treasures that most people never discover.

We discover within us the power to burst through any challenge, to overcome any obstacle, and to shatter any roadblock. We discover that our commitment to the people and ideas we hold dear, is bulletproof. The strength needed to burst forward and get us back on the right path is now channeled to sustain and nurture our commitments. 

We recognize that “one [of the babies] stuck out his hand [from the womb]. The midwife took a scarlet thread and tied it on his hand to signify, 'This one emerged first.'" We recognize that our midwife - The Torah and G-d - tells us to take the first path. The path that has the shiny crimson string on it. It’s the path that will get you the name Zerach which means to shine. It’s the path that the Torah is pointing toward. And yet, if we fail to take the preferred path. If we find ourselves in the dark, we must know that we can be a Peretz - the one who bursts forward. The Torah is telling us that ultimately Peretz is the one who achieves greatness, and becomes the ancestor of King David, who becomes one of the greatest leaders in our history, precisely because he overcame spiritual failure. 

King David, the descendent of Peretz, is the ancestor of Moshiach. Because the perfection of the world will be achieved, not by those who never experienced pain, but by those whose pain was transformed into fuel for good. To the point that they, as well as the people around them, cry out in amazement: "With what vigor have you pushed yourself ahead!"

Strive to stretch your hand and reach for the crimson path of Zerach, but if you fail, burst forward like Peretz. You will be the first born. You will achieve more than anyone would dream is possible[2]


[1] Genesis 38:27-30.

[2] Based on Lekutey Sichos Vol. 30 page 188. 

 

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