Judaism Turned Inside Out
November 19, 2021
By Ori Bergman

Maimonides writes that ‘the command of Chanukah lights is very precious. One who lacks the money to buy lights should sell something, or if necessary borrow, to be able to fulfil the mitzvah.’ But, what if, on Friday afternoon, you find yourself with only one candle? Do you light a Shabbat candle or a Chanukah one? Arguably, you should light it as a Chanukah candle since there is no law that you have to sell or borrow lights for Shabbat. Yet the law is you light it as a Shabbat light. Why? Maimonides writes: “The Shabbat light takes priority because it symbolizes shalom bayit, domestic peace. And great is peace because the entire Torah was given to make peace in the world” (Maimonides Laws of Chanukah 4:12-14).

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l explains this further: The Shabbat light takes precedence because in Judaism the greatest military victory takes second place to peace in the home. Judaism’s survival is because we have always valued children more than generals and peace in the home over military victory. That’s our true glory.

This inside out approach is a common theme throughout Judaism.

For instance, the 19th century German Rabbi, Samson Refael Hirsch said:  “If I had the power I would provisionally close all synagogues for a hundred years. Jews and Jewesses without synagogues, desiring to remain such, would be forced to concentrate on a Jewish life and a Jewish Home” (Translators Introduction, the Hirsch Chumash). Judaism is nurtured in the home and cannot be outsourced to an institution or others.

The same applies to the individual.

In Judaism, we work from the inside out recognizing that a moral society is made up of many moral individuals.  “For what reason was Man created singular by G-d?” asks the Mishnah. To teach us that everyone is uniquely individual and should say: For me the world was created!” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5.)

Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, the famed master of Mussar and character development, elaborated on this theme in saying that “every person must say: I, with all my abilities, potentials and talents, both physical and spiritual, am unique in the universe. Amongst all those alive today there is no other me. In past generations too, there was no other me, and until the end of time there will be no other me. And if so, the Master of the Universe must certainly have sent me here on a special mission that could be fulfilled by no one else but me- with all my uniqueness.”

The Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement, develops this idea and teaches that every person needs to look inwards at themselves first and foremost. He says that “every single thing that a person sees or hears, is an instruction to him in his conduct in the service of G-d.” As a result, he stressed “that anyone you encounter serves as the mirror into yourself. If your own face is clean, so will be the image you perceive. But should you look upon your fellow and see a blemish, it is your own imperfection that you are encountering – you are being shown what it is that you must correct within yourself.”

Similarly, the Lubavitcher Rebbe taught: “If you see what needs to be repaired and how to repair it, then you have found a piece of the world that God has left for you to complete. But if you only see what is wrong and how ugly it is, then it is you yourself that needs repair.”

The great Hillel the Elder stated similarly that: “don’t judge your fellow until YOU reach their place, i.e. enter their shoes.” (Ethics of the Fathers 2:4). In that light, a student of a student of Hillel, Ben Zoma, taught: Who is brave and strong? The person that overcomes their own inclination (Ethics of the Fathers 4:1.) It takes more courage to refrain from insult than to launch it. Our goal is to “overcome” ourselves rather than assert ourselves over others.

Like the lessons of the Sabbath candles, our personal development starts from ourselves and extends outwards. Thus, Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of the Mussar movement stated as follows: When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world. But I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my country. When I found I couldn’t change my country, I began to focus on my town. However, I discovered that I couldn’t change the town, and so as I grew older, I tried to change my family. Now, I realize the only thing I can change is myself and I’ve come to recognize that if I start with myself, then I could make an impact on my family. And, my family and I could make impact on our town. And that, in turn, could change the country and we could indeed change the world.

The lessons of Chanukah also prepare us for Thanksgiving. The first action of the day, teaches Judaism, happens in the inner chambers of one’s bedroom while just waking up. Still in a slumber, the first inclination of the individual is to say: Thank You G-d for granting me another day and believing in me to light up the world. Our small gesture of personal thanks, as our first act of the day, translates into a day and life of gratitude, the beneficiaries of which, are our loved ones.

Chanukah directs us towards an inner view of our existence. Like the oil, which needs to be extracted from the olive, we summon our own inner oil and light and use it to illuminate our surroundings. As one Chassidic Rebbe taught: Our purpose is to be lamplighters. Once we light and fan our own flame, we walk the streets carrying our flame, going from person to person, helping them light their own flame and inner light.

This concept of an inner view of existence, the notion of Torah wisdom, is symbolized by oil and its light. Indeed, the Hebrew word hashemen “the oil,” has the same Hebrew letters as neshamah, “soul.” The oil is the hidden essence of the olive and the soul is the hidden essence of a person. And what is our soul: a candle. “The candle of G-d is the soul of man “, teaches Solomon (proverbs 20:27) and we are called upon to fan the flames of our souls to become lamplighters to those around us. 

Thus we take our menorahs and place them by the window facing the night. With our own flames aglow, we direct it towards those around us, especially those who feel they are in darkness and hardship. In so doing, we become a light unto others and a light to the nations.

May we all have a Happy Thanksgiving and an illuminating Chanukah!

Ori Bergman is the Rabbi of Kehillat Ohr Tzion and an educator with LiNK Jewish Buffalo.  He can be reached at: oribergman@gmail.com

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