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Decreasing Light/ Increasing Light

There is a well-known debate in the Talmud between the schools of Hillel and Shammai about how to light the Chanukah candles. Shammai suggests that on the first night we should light eight candles, on the second night we should light seven, on the third night six, etc. etc. Hillel argues. He takes the view that we are familiar with and suggests that on the first night we light one, on the second night we light two, and on and on. In Hebrew, Beis Shammai says, poches v’holech, which means we progressively decrease the light, and Beis Hillel says, mosef v’holech, we progressively increase the light.

The first chief Ashkenazi chief rabbi of the Palestine Mandate, Rabbi Avraham Yitchak Kook, was a profound thinker. Not only are his writings overflowing with brilliant insights, his letters to friends and students are a source of some of the most novel additions to Jewish thought. In one such letter, he expounds on this Talmudic debate, explaining the rationale behind these two views, that of a progressive increase of lights as opposed to a progressive decease.

He begins by citing a well-known concept discussed in Jewish literature of yeridas hadoros, how in each generation, the spiritual level decreases. “If the earlier generations were like angelswe are like mere men; if they were like men, we are like donkeys,” is one such Talmudic statement. This view is what Beis Shammai is promoting in his way of lighting the Menorah; the light, the light of the Torah, the light of spirituality, is poches v’holech, it is constantly decreasing.

Beis Hillel does not disagree, suggests Rav Kook. He agrees that as time marches on there is a decrease of spiritual light in the world. However, the decreasing light is the light of the leadership. When it comes to leaders, we could certainly say, “If the earlier generations were like angelswe are like mere men; if they were like men, we are like donkeys.” However, argues Beis Hillel, when it comes to the masses, when it comes to am Yisrael, when it comes to the people, the opposite is true. Mosef v’holech, the light of spirituality gets progressively brighter and brighter and brighter. As time marches on, there is a greater dissemination of knowledge, an increase in moral sensitivity, and a deepening of spiritual connection among the masses that earlier generations were not exposed to. While it is true that our leaders’ light has decreased, the people’s light has only grown stronger. To symbolize this idea, the growing light of the people, we light one candle on the first night and progressively increase the light of the Menorah.

This past week, TIME magazine announced their person of the year award – only that it wasn’t a person. The person of the year award went to the Whistle Blowers, the growing number of people, from the famous, to the anonymous, who have come forward to share their stories of sexual harassment and abuse. The TIME person of the year award goes to a person or people who have influenced the world the most in the past year. In case you think this group is not deserving, realize that collectively, in the past few months, these whistleblowers have brought down the CEO of Uber due to allegations of misconduct, Harvey Weinstein, one of the most influential and powerful men in Hollywood, Louis C.K., probably the biggest name in comedy today, two-time award-winning actor Kevin Spacey, who had his popular Netflix show, House of Cards cancelled because of allegations which he admitted to, and the list goes on and on.

This past week, former senator Roy Moore, despite an endorsement from President Trump, lost the special-election in the very red-state of Alabama. On paper, he lost the election to Democrat, Doug Jones. But in truth, he lost the election to the people, to the masses. Many of those voting did not vote for Doug Jones, they voted against the current leader of the State.

That is, in my opinion, a reflection, of Rav Kook’s analysis of Shammai and Hillel. It is a world of decreasing light in our established leadership, and a world of increasing power, influence, and moral strength among the people. While the leadership is poches v’holech, the people’s light is mosif v’holech. We have moved on, in many ways, from looking up and instead we have realized our own power and influence and have begun to look within. The light of the people is mosif v’holech, growing ever steadily.

In Israel, this past week, hundreds of thousands of Jews lined the streets of Jerusalem to pay respects to Rabbi Aryeh Leib Shteinman. He was not a household name outside of the Chareidi camp, but within it, he was the most influential Halachic decisor, he wielded unparalleled political power, and was publicly acknowledged to be the gadol hador, the great one of the generation. He was a fabulous teacher, he wrote numerous books and pamphlets that were widely disseminated, he was an ascetic, he slept on the same thin mattress given to him by the Jewish Agency in 1948 until just a few years ago, and he was a pragmatic leader. He was a driving force in the establishment of Nachal Chareidi, the unit of the IDF created for Chareidi Jews to ensure that their religious standards would be respected, and he silently influenced many Charedim to join the IDF. He encouraged many Chareidi men to take up professions ensuring that they would be able to support their families. While those view caused him to be denounced by some vocal opposition leaders in the Chareidi world, he held his own, and was universally seen as THE leader of the Torah world. This past week, at the age of 104, his soul returned to its Creator.

Following his passing, many of the headlines in Charedi new outlets were variations of, ‘Who will Lead the Jewish World?’ Or, ‘Who will be the Next Chareidi Leader?’

Now you have to appreciate that in their world their leaders do not only teach them Torah, they endorse their prospective brides and grooms, they tell them what do for a living, they tell them who to vote for. And so they feel truly orphaned without an individual who could guide them in that way.

Rav Kook, if he were here, and if they would listen, I imagine he would tell them, “It’s true, from the perspective of leadership, the light is progressively getting dimmer. But don’t underestimate your own light! The light, the spirituality of you and I, of the nameless citizens, of the masses, of Am Yisrael, that light is getting brighter and brighter by the day. We know more, we understand more, and we yield far more influence than ever. Let that growing light guide you!

I know, the Chareid world is not a world we relate to that easily. We do not turn to a spiritual leader to tell us who to marry, what to do, and we certainly not who to vote for. So on the one hand, Rav Kook’s advice may not be relevant to us, we know it already as we have a far more egalitarian view of leadership. But at the same time, I think his words do need to be repeated. Because all too often I hear people cry, where are the spiritual leaders on this or that issue? Where are the rabbis? Whether it’s the Jewish day school crises, whether it’s a lack of better support for victims of abuse, or whether it’s crime in the community. Why aren’t the leaders doing more?

And it’s a valid question, it really is. Please do not misunderstand me. Leaders are appointed to lead. And if they don’t lead, they should be held accountable. I repeat, leaders are appointed to lead.

But at the same time, do not underestimate the growing light of the citizen, do not underestimate the power, the growing power of the people. At one point we have to roll up our sleeves and take care of things on our own. At one point we have to acknowledge that we live in a world where leaders have less power and the light of the people, the power of the people is growing steadily from a small candle to a brilliant and beautiful fire. That’s not just an observation, it’s a responsibility to roll up our sleeves, to stop waiting for someone else to do the heavy lifting, to tap into that growing light and to do something with it.

It’s true when it comes to social action and it’s true when it comes to Torah scholarship as well. Before I was a rabbi, when I had a Halachic question or a general question about Judaism, I would immediately ask someone else, I would ask my rabbi. One of the great perks of being a rabbi is that I am forced to answer so many of those questions on my own. I am forced to learn more, to know more, to understand things on a deeper level.

And while it’s great for me, it’s also a real pity. That’s not the way it should be. The light of Am Yisrael, the light of the nation is increasing, and that means that we, as people, need to access that light. When we have a question, please feel free to ask me, I enjoy it immensely, I really do, and that’s what I’m here for. But wouldn’t it be beautiful if before we ask a question we research it on our own? Wouldn’t it be beautiful if we, all of us, take ownership of our Jewish knowledge? Wouldn’t the Jewish People look entirely different if instead of constantly looking to others for a spiritual boost, we were the sources of our own inspiration?

The light of Am Yisrael is growing; so much of Torah is translated, so much of Torah is available at our fingertips with a click of a button. We are far more educated as a people than we ever were. And we live in a world where we have the time and headspace to grow our spiritual lives. Don’t look up. Look within.

There is a tradition that in the Messianic era this regression of leadership will revert itself. All the more reason to pray for the Messianic Era, we need it today like we’ve never needed it before; in the Jewish world and in the world at large. Although many of our leaders are wonderful, they do their job and so much more, but there are also those who do not, who at best, shirk their responsibilities and at worst, abuse their power. Until that time we rule like Beis Hillel, we focus not on the decreasing light among our leaders, but on the increase of our own light. We are mosef v’holevch, we progressively add to the light of the Menorah. Let’s do so not only symbolically, but let’s add more light into our lives. Let’s speak up more, let’s act more, and let’s learn more. Let’s appreciate the brilliant glow that burns within.


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