There is a famous machlokes between Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel regarding the lighting of Chanukah candles:
- According to Beis Shammai, we start by lighting eight on the first night, and then gradually decrease the number of candles, until we end up lighting only one on the 8th night.
- By contrast, Beis Hillel is of the opinion that we should start with one, and slowly build up to a grand finale, with eight candles on the final night.
We are all familiar with some of the explanations behind this difference, but today lets explore one of the lesser know approaches, from Rav Dessler in his work, Michtav M’Eliyahu.
Are we all tzaddikim?
Chagim are an interesting time for analysing our own personal growth and connection with yiddishkeit. Do we have simply an external connection, or does it go deeper? Rav Dessler divides our possible connection into different ‘levels’:
- Entirely external: We may be observing the trappings of certain mitzvot on an external level only. Perhaps we are simply performing mitzvos out of rote. Or we could be giving our observance some thought, but acting ‘lo lishma’ (without pure intentions).
- Emotional connection: A more nuanced level is to observe mitzvos and serve Hashem through an emotional connection. However, this will still only get you so far. There will be times when our emotions dissipate, revealing that our connection built on pure emotions is not truly part of us.
- Internalised connection: This is where an individual is able to delve deeper into the mitzvos, and really internalise their meaning. They do not rely purely on intellect or emotion.
Most of us, as you may have guessed, are not operating at this third level. This level, Rav Dessler points out, is achieved only by tzaddikim. So how to does this manifest on chagim? Many of us, operating on a ‘average’ level, gain the most from the beginning of the chag. This is when excitement is at its highest, as we have an appreciation of that which is new. Think about succos: the first time we sit in the succah, we are most excited and engaged. Things go down hill a little bit from there. Contrast that with the tzaddikim: with a heightened appreciation for mitzvos, they will enjoy and gain from the chag the more it goes on. This means day one of succos will be very special, day two will be even better, and day eight will be greater still.
Enter Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel. One way of understanding this machlokes is: do we operate at our existing level, or do we operate at the level of tzaddikim. Let us elaborate further:
- Beis Shammai is of the opinion that we should only ever operate at our actual level of yiddishkeit. We must be real with ourselves. We are not tzaddikim, and should not try to be. As non-tzaddikim, we must recognise that the initial point of the mitzvah, or the first day of chag, is the highest point in our observance, and things will gradually decline from there. To fool ourselves into anything else would be dangerous. Our external actions should only ever match where we are holding internally, and so we should never take on the external trappings on a mitzvah until we are ready to do so internally. And so, it becomes clear that we should begin Chanukah with a bang: start by lighting eight candles. Then, as our own flame begins to dwindle, so can the amount of candles. This may be depressing, but may also reflect our true avodah.
- Beis Hillel turns this on its head, by maintaining that we should all strive to be tzaddikim. Yes, its true that we might not be operating on such a level now. But Beis Hillel maintains that it is dangerous to not even try. If we hold back our external actions until our internal selves are ready to comply, we might never get anywhere! And so we should push ahead, whilst of course keeping ourselves grounded. As a result, Beis Hillel instructs us to behave, and indeed to light our Chanukah candles, in the manner of tzaddikim: start with one, and build ever greater from there. The fact that we paskin like Beis Hillel in this regard is quite telling…
Being real with ourselves and with others
There is a powerful lesson here. Many of us will be caught up for most of every day with work: travelling to work, being at work, travelling home, and perhaps taking work with us. We might be tempted to think, “I don’t have much time for davening or learning or personal growth. I must be realistic with myself. I need a parnassah. Personal growth will have to wait“.
The lesson of Beis Hillel is: expect more from yourself. It is certainly true, we might not be there yet. And yes, we might not have many hours to spare in the day or the strength or inclination to work on ourselves. But how will we know until we try?
In the dead of winter, as we get ready to light our Chanukah candles, let us reclaim back a small part of day, for ourselves and our relationship with Hashem. In striving to be better, we can bring ourselves closer to being so.
The Working Jew
 Partly based on a shiur series by R’ Avraham Zeidman on Michtav M’Eliyahu.