Home > General > Increase sanctity and never downgrade holiness: Holiness then and now

by Rabbi Yoav Ende

תמונות חנתון-52As we approach the last days of Chanukah, we hold according to Beit Hillel and increase the light with one new candle each night, because “we only increase sanctity and never downgrade holiness”. We finish the holiday of Chanukah when the light of the small candle becomes a great flame.

Many meanings and symbols have been attributed to the light of the candles. I wish to take Beit Hillel’s message and to ask how we, as a society, as a state and as a people, can not only “spread light” but also live our lives so that we increase holiness as well.

I would like to continue with the image of “light” in order to examine (briefly) the period in which we are living and then to consider how we might increase holiness today.

I ask that we consider that courageous Hasmonean who lit the menorah, knowing that there was not enough oil to keep it going for eight days.  Let’s also consider the visionary Zionists who dreamt of establishing a state, and even though it seemed both impossible and unreasonable, they did not hesitate.

Today, we must be much less presumptuous than those who came before us, but also much braver than we are right now.

Frequently, when we wish to describe the period in which we live, we use the expression: “Light and darkness were disordered in the heavens” (אור וחושך משמשים בערבוביה). Let’s look more closely at this expression.

We are, indeed, living in a confusing period here in Israel.

On the one hand, we have a strong state, a strong economy, and a strong army. We are a start-up nation.  People from around the world come to study and spend time here. Indeed, it seems that our situation has never been better when we consider the history of the Jewish people.

On the other hand, there are those who would claim, with good reason, that our society is polarized, with gaps growing larger on many levels (political, religious, economic) and both the power of democracy and our belief in a better future weakened. At times, it might seem that we are in danger of falling into a deep void, with despair breaking us down.

Indeed, where are we?

Are we stepping towards a giant a void? Are we in the greatest period of our history? Perhaps both? Or perhaps we are somewhere in the middle, no better and no worse. Just average. But is there really such a thing – average?

We are at a crossroads in our journey.

Our wagon can slide down the mountain or it can climb to the highest point. It is all in our hands. But do these hands know how to hold on to each other, not only to prevent us from falling into the void but also to pull us up higher and higher?

On the one hand, we strive to be a unified society. We are desperate for “togetherness”, “unity” and “unconditional love” that will bring us together. On the other hand, there are difficult and fundamental disagreements that separate and divide us.

It seems that today there is no “oneness” strong enough to bring us all together to make the big decisions about our future. We are afraid to shake the wagon in any way, for fear that it might tumble over completely. As a result, we are afraid – or we frighten ourselves into believing – that if we do make declarations, we will destroy any unity that exists. And this proves to us once again that indeed, this unity is not stable enough, because if it were, we would be able to make the powerful and important decisions needed in Israel today.

Today we are at a junction that demands that we choose a path – either the path of “unity” or the path to those decisions that will determine our future. What happens when we are stuck at this junction and cannot move in either direction?

In politics, this is called a standstill. But how can we speak of a standstill when it comes to human beings? Is there such a thing as a social standstill? A policy standstill? An economic standstill? A poverty line standstill?

Rabbi Yisrael Salanter wrote:

Man is Like a Bird
A bird can reach undreamed-of heights
so long as he works his wings.
Should he relax them for but one minute,
he plummets downward.
If a person does not reach higher and higher,
against his will, he plummets lower and lower.

Perhaps this is heroism today, understanding that nothing is static, there is no “standstill”, no such thing as “it will be okay”, but rather only the need to work to bring about the “good” that we seek and to increase holiness.

How do we do this? I believe that one of our tasks is to constantly be working towards unity, a true unity, one that respects differences and sees these differences as the ideal and not as a compromise. And at the same time, another task is to raise leaders who will unify our society, but also lead us to respect all of our citizens and our past while simultaneously ensuring our future.  

As Rav Kook wrote:

Every person must know and understand,
that in the depth of his being a candle burns,
and his candle is not at all like his friend’s candle,
and there is absolutely no one that has no candle.
And every man must know and understand,
that he must work hard to reveal the candle’s light to everyone,
and to light his candle as a great torch that will give light to the entire world.

Rav Kook’s words, which he wrote about the individual, are also applicable to our whole society. We must understand, work hard and ignite the torch that will light the way for us and for the world.  

Chag Orim Sameach!


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