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Parshas Mikeitz (5769)

It's Not "All or Nothing" in Judaism

By Rabbi David Zauderer

As we are now in the middle of celebrating the holiday of Chanukah, I would like to share with you a beautiful insight from my great uncle, Rabbi Yehoshua Baumol, of blessed memory, which sheds light on the mitzvah of kindling the menorah, as well as on the Jewish attitude toward spiritual growth and the kindling of the soul.

The Talmud in Tractate Shabbos 21b relates:

Our Rabbis taught: The mitzvah of Chanukah requires one light for the entire household [meaning, one light should be lit every night for the entire household]; those who wish to beautify the mitzvah kindle one light for each member of the household; and regarding those wish to beautify it even more [there is a difference of opinion] - Beis Shammai [the students of Shammai] maintain: On the first day you should light eight lights, and one less each of the following days. But Beis Hillel [the students of Hillel] contend: On the first day you should light one light, and on the following seven days you should increase the number by one each day ... The reason of Beis Shammai is that the lights to be lit each day should correspond to the number of days [of Chanukah] that are yet to come. And the reason of Beis Hillel is that it should correspond to the number of days that have gone by.

The reasons that Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel offer for their respective opinions regarding the sequence of the candle-lighting on the eight days of Chanukah are quite difficult to understand. After all, what is so significant about "the number of days that have gone by", according to Beis Hillel, that we should light the candles in a manner which corresponds to that number? And the same question can be asked about Beis Shammai's rationale.

The answer to this difficulty, and the key to understanding the argument between Shammai and Hillel, can be found in another difference of opinion between these two great Talmudic sages.

The Talmud in Tractate Shabbos 31a relates that a certain ger (potential convert to Judaism) came before Shammai and asked to be converted on condition that he be taught the entire Torah "while standing on one foot" [meaning without investing too much effort initially]. Shammai pushed him away with a builder's ruler he was holding in his hand. The non-Jew then went to Hillel, who accepted him as a convert. Hillel said to him, "[The fundamental rule of the Torah is:] Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself; that is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and learn it."

The name of the holiday which we are celebrating presently - Chanukah - comes from the Hebrew word chinuch, which means dedication. The Hasmoneans, led by Judah Maccabee and his brothers, drove all the Greeks out of the area around Jerusalem, and, on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kisleiv, entered the Temple Mount and began to purge the Temple of its sacrileges and defilement, renewing the daily rituals and sacrifices, and rededicating the Holy Temple to G-d. In this way, the holiday of Chanukah is really symbolic of the Jewish people's "coming back" to G-d and renewing and rededicating themselves to His service. And the way that we light the candles of the menorah each night of Chanukah parallels our own individual spiritual yearning and growth.

Shammai and his students were of the opinion that a person who is "coming back" to G-d and to increased religious feeling and ritual observance [i.e. the potential convert, or, for that matter, each and every one of us who is growing Jewishly and looking to learn more about Judaism and the Torah], has to start with a very strong and solid foundation from the outset - he must light all eight candles on the very first day of his personal Chanukah/rededication to G-d's service.

And the reason why this is so crucial is because of "the days that are yet to come" - meaning that it's only going to get harder and more challenging to maintain that spiritual growth in the days ahead - so we had better start now with a very strong commitment in our renewed dedication to Judaism. Anyone who wants to "get the whole Torah while standing on one foot" has no hope for sustaining that commitment in the future, in Shammai's view.

Hillel and his students, on the other hand, have more faith in man's spiritual yearning and quest for personal growth. They say that it's okay to start small - just light one candle on the first day and over time, little by little, you will grow until the time when you fell comfortable enough to light more candles and take on more observance - and remember, it's not all or nothing in Judaism. You can start your spiritual journey by learning about onemitzvah today - the mitzvah of treating your friend as you yourself would want to be treated - and over time, with G-d's help, you will be able to learn the all the rest of the commentary.

Hillel's reason for having such confidence in the individual Jew's personal quest for spiritual growth, even in the face of all the inevitable obstacles, challenges and setbacks that lay ahead of him, comes from looking at "the days that have gone by" - i.e. the rich heritage and legacy of our people who, although faced with persecution, torture, poverty, and countless other difficulties, have always managed to maintain a strong commitment to G-d and to His Torah, and have even been able to grow spiritually and thrive under those difficult circumstances.

And, as the Rabbis taught, the word Chanukah - spelled in Hebrew ches, nun, vav, kaf, heh - is an acronym for the words Ches Neiros V'Halachah K'Beis Hillel - we light eight candles according to the sequence of Beis Hillel.

So, as we light the Chanukah candles this year - each night adding an additional candle according to the Halachically accepted opinion of Beis Hillel - we should remind ourselves that as we attempt to grow in our Judaism, looking for ways of incorporating more meaningful Jewish rituals and observances into our daily lives, it is okay to start small with just one candle or just one mitzvah, and eventually, little by little, our spiritual journey will take us to new places and to new layers of meaning.

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