Wednesday, December 9, 2009
My new article
Check out my new article published in the Winter edition of Amit Magazine. You can see the virtual edition here or read the text below. Enjoy!
What’s Light Got to Do with It?
How 8 little lights show us how to shine
In my second year of college, I accidentally discovered what would become my passion and focus of study for the duration of my four years. I had signed up for a course on drawing, thinking that it would be fun and relaxing. In reality, the class was anything but recreational. The course was painful. The professor was relentless. Still, I learned and increased my skills a thousand times over. I fell in love with the subject and changed my major from psychology to fine arts. The next year, I experienced a different professor and with her, a different approach to art. Professor Berger could look at the most horrendous painting and find something good about it. She would share her find with the student who painted it and that student would shine. The student would develop the particular aspect of her talent that Professor Berger had highlighted, and in that way develop into a sophisticated artist with a unique flair. This was quite different from the approach of my first professor, Professor Fink. A student could stay up all night working on a drawing only to have it torn up (literally) by the critical professor the next day. It wasn’t unusual for students to leave Professor Fink’s class in tears. The more we perfected our techniques, the more she would point out our flaws. The more she would point out our flaws, the more we would perfect our techniques. When I began her class I could hardly draw a straight line. By the time she was done with me I could replicate drawings by Michelangelo.
So who is the better professor?
The Talmud deals with this very question, only instead of Fink and Berger, it speaks about 1st century scholars Hillel and Shammai, and the question is phrased differently. The Talmud discusses whether we should add one candle each night of Chanukah or if we should begin with eight candles and subtract one candle each night. Hillel says that we increase, while Shammai maintains that we decrease. Whenever these two sages argue, there is always a deeper level to their respective opinions. Candles produce fire, and fire can do two things. It can destroy and it can illuminate. On Chanukah, our candles represent both the destruction of our Greek oppressors, and the light of our rededicated Temple and renewed learning of Torah. What Hillel and Shammai are really debating is which aspect of Chanukah is more important?
According to Shammai, the primary lesson of Chanukah is to destroy evil. The path of spiritual growth begins by first destroying all of the negative aspects within oneself. We light one less candle every night to indicate that we have been working on ourselves and that we need less fire, as there is less to burn up. On the other hand, Hillel believes that the more important lesson of Chanukah is the light and the accentuating of goodness. The way to spiritual perfection is to find the good within ourselves and to develop our positive traits. Each night we add light to signify the growth of goodness within us.
In reality we need to do both; eliminate evil and increase goodness. This is reflected in the laws of lighting Chanukah candles which require the light to be an actual fire (electric menorahs do not fulfill the obligation) and a light that provides illumination (the menorah must be placed in an area that is visible to all). Like my two professors, Hillel and Shammai offer two approaches to human development. Ultimately, we give preference to Hillel’s opinion. We increase the light every night of Chanukah by adding one candle. In this world and at this time it is better to focus on developing our positive traits, rather than getting bogged down with the daunting task of eliminating all of our negative tendencies. If we expect ourselves and everyone around us to become perfect, we will fail before we even begin. It is important to confront and destroy the evil within us and our world, however we must first believe in the goodness of ourselves. And while we are not free to walk away from the challenge of perfecting the world, the focus has to be on celebrating and developing what is already working. Our tradition teaches us that in the messianic times, we will follow the opinion of Shammai. One day we will be able to totally eradicate any traces of evil. However, now is the time to spread goodness and change the world, one tiny light at a time.