July 19, 2024
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The honorable Yehudah Avner, z”l, was a legendary ambassador, diplomat and political insider. A consiglieri for Prime Minister Menachem Begin, z”l, Avner also filled advisory roles to a gamut of Israeli leaders across the political spectrum, playing an integral role and was present for major decision-making moments that shaped Israel’s foreign policy for more than half a century.

Avner was a lifelong activist — a wise, colorful, larger-than-life personality — dedicated to building the state of Israel and ensuring the wellbeing of Am Yisrael. In his trusted role as a perennial insider with prime ministers and other dignitaries, he would often accompany them on trips abroad and meet other world leaders. He met with the Lubavitcher Rebbe many times, and shared the following moving anecdote from one particular yechidus, or private meeting.

Late one night — after more than two hours of intensive conversation on an array of topics ranging from geopolitics to personal matters — I posed a direct question to the rebbe: “What is it that the rebbe seeks to accomplish?”

The rebbe smiled and pointed toward one of the many seforim shelves in the office. “Yehuda, look there, on the shelf. What is that you see?”

“A candle,” I replied.

“No, no, it’s not a candle,” the rebbe said, shaking his head, “it is simply a lump of wax with a string in the middle of it … When does a lump of wax become a candle? Only when you bring a flame and ignite the wick, does it become a candle.”

The rebbe continued his point in a talmudic sing-song: “The ‘wax’ is our body … and the ‘wick’ is our soul; the ‘flame’ is the fire of Torah and mitzvos. When the soul is lit up by the flame of Torah — achieving the purpose for which we are created — that’s when the person becomes a ‘candle.’ This is the goal — to help every man and woman achieve the purpose for which they were created.”

An hour or so later — as the sun was about to rise — the yechidus drew to a close. As I stepped back and out of the rebbe’s office, our eyes met again, and I asked, “So … has the rebbe lit my candle?”

Once again, the rebbe shook his head, and answered in a quiet, serious tone, “No, no … I am only able to give you the match. It is you, who must light your own candle.”

~

In Yiddishkeit, the lights we kindle as part of our divine service, are meant to be understood as manifestations of our soul: נר ה׳ נשמת אדם  — “The lamp of Hashem is the soul of man,” (Mishlei, 20:27). Furthermore, the letters of נפש, nefesh (soul) is a roshei teivos of the acronym of ner (light): kli, (the vessel), petil (the wick) and shemen (the oil).

Chazal present specific, demanding requirements for the materials that may be used for kindling Shabbos lights. In general, we must use oils and materials for wicks that are of high quality and known to produce a sustainable, clean and constant flame. Bameh Madlikin (the second chapter of Masechet Shabbos) lists oils, fuels and wicks that — due to their inferior quality — are not permitted to be used for kindling the Shabbos lights. One of the main concerns is that low-quality materials will not last long enough or the light may flicker, leading one to unthinkingly perform a melachah (a prohibited labor) to correct it, once one has already accepted or entered Shabbos.

For the sake of kavod Shabbos, the flame must draw the oil properly. However, when it comes to the hadlakas neiros of Shabbos Chanukah (kindling the Shabbos Chanukah lights) that falls within the eight days of Chanukah, the halacha reflects a different paradigm. Even oils and wicks that do not burn well may be used.

The first Gerrer Rebbe, Reb Yitzchak Meir — the Chidushei HaRim — teaches that the lights of Shabbos and the lights of Chanukah are representative of different spiritual archetypes — the different ways that Jews experience Yiddishkeit.

Tragically, the majority of Jews don’t yet appreciate the holiness and central role Shabbos holds in our identity, tradition and spiritual role in the world. The radiant and awesome light of the weekly holy day of Shabbos remains a challenge for many to internalize. Therefore, to help everyone understand the light of Shabbos, this light must be channeled through proper wicks and refined oils.

The light of Chanukah, however, has a quality that resonates with all Jews — regardless of their current ability to appreciate Shabbos. Beyond the universal appeal of a light that banishes darkness — and, especially, during this season — there are deeper reasons for this resonance.

While there are many opinions on the ideal placement and height of the Chanukah menorah that we use, all agree that the optimal way to achieve pirsumei nisa (publicization of the miracle of Chanukah) is as stated in Shulchan Aruch (671:6): “It is a mitzvah to light ones candles within 10 tefachim from the ground.”

Chazal explain that the Shechinah — the divine presence in this world — never descended below 10 tefachim (handwidths). The lights of Chanukah, however, draw the divine presence to a level below 10 tefachim and, thereby, illuminate even the “lowest” or most basic regions of our spirituality. This awakens the latent kesher (connection) to the divine in our heart, no matter what level we may find ourselves on. Even if we feel distant from Jewish practice, are experiencing “spiritual burnout,” or sense that our relationship with God has become dim; the light of Chanukah — the light of the inextinguishable essence of the soul — touches the level of nefesh that can remain unmoved by Shabbos.

Shabbos demonstrates that Hashem created the world and everything in it. To live with this recognition is a lofty level. But Chanukah — Reb Yitzchak Meir concludes — is an expression of the relationship Hashem has with Am Yisrael, standing by us even when we are at our lowest point. Every one of us can see and feel this miracle — each in our own way — and light our own “candle.”


Rav Judah Mischel is executive director of Camp HASC, the Hebrew Academy for Special Children. He is the mashpiah of OU-NCSY, founder of Tzama Nafshi and the author of “Baderech: Along the Path of Teshuva.” Rav Judah lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh with his wife Ora and their family.

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