Spreading Light

On the first night of Chanukah, we use the shamash to light just one candle, and as the holiday progresses, we increase the number of lights, until we have eight candles burning. As we kindle the Chanukiah, we bring light and joy into the world- serving as a perfect metaphor for our role as Jews in a modern world, not just during Chanukah, but throughout the year, as we aim to spread kindness and light wherever we go.

We aim to be a light to the nations, but many people- including myself- feel somewhat insufficient upon reading this phrase. Perhaps we’re just ordinary people, we think. We aren’t great lights; we don’t have some amazing role in the way the world works; we just need to live our lives. And anyway, how can we progress from this sort of philosophy, to tikkun olam; to changing the world?

Chanukah provides us with the answer to this question. Start small, and dream big. Charity begins at home, with one kind deed, which has the power to light up a life, and lead to other illuminating and inspiring good deeds. So this Chanukah, as we sit by the candles and think about our lives, our goals, our purpose in this world, if we start to feel overwhelmed by the duties incumbent upon us, to mend a world with so much sadness in it, then we only need to look into the light of the Chanukiah to find courage and inspiration. Start small, and build up to greater things.

The Candlesticks

Many people will be surprised to hear that, throughout my Jewish journey, I have never owned a pair of Shabbes candlesticks. In the beginning, I had to use an electric “candle” in place of kindling Shabbes lights, and later, I began to light candles at relatives’ houses, never really considering buying candlesticks for myself. I never needed to light at home, and candlesticks were expensive.

But today, my arms full of groceries, laden down with tins and packets and even crockery, I set my eyes upon a pair of gold candlesticks and I knew they were mine.

I always imagined that buying my first pair of Shabbes candlesticks would be a beautiful, romantic experience, not one that took place in a crowded little shop, carrying matzah balls and packets of biscuits. But as I paid for them and left, I realised that much of my Jewish journey has been this way. Unexpected. Unromantic. And all the more beautiful for it.

As time passes, I begin to realise that many of us have lost sight of the big picture- myself more than some. We get caught up in fleeting beauty and charm, the trappings of an ‘ideal life’ and forget to cherish the memories and experiences; the moments shared and the laughter spread.

When I make a shehecheyanu on the candlesticks this Rosh Hashono, I’m not going to be thinking about how they could be brighter, or shinier, or more like the candlesticks I see photos of in magazines. Instead, I’m going to think about the beautiful opportunity lying within my hands: the opportunity to spread light.

A Chanukah Message

This message may seem familiar to some of you, but I thought it was worth posting. Once again, I would like to wish you, dear reader, the happiest of Chanukahs!

Chanukah’s only just started but it’s been pretty turbulent for me so far, and I’d like to wish everyone else a slightly more stable Chanukah, but above all, one filled with light and happiness. There are many people in this world working day and night, giving their all, to bring light into this world. I know them. You know them. Without naming any names, I can think of people I’ve met, known, loved, lost and cherised, who did and do their utmost to spread light. This Chanukah, be one of them. Light up a life. Whether it’s through hospitality, visiting someone who’s sick, giving to charity, or simply helping someone run an errand, you can be the source of light in an otherwise dark time.

And you may never know how much of an impact you had.

Gut Shabbes and Freilichen Chanukah!

This week, shabbes is followed directly by the first night of Chanukah! So after enjoying the Havdalah ceremony, light your Chanukiah (instructions can be found online on Chabad.org), and enjoy its radiance- alongside with latkes and sofganiyos, and perhaps a game of draydel! But first and most importantly, there’s shabbes; in London, shabbes candles should be lit at 3:37 PM, and Shabbes ends at 4:54 PM (after which you can light your menorah). While lighting your candles, please remember Chaim Elozor ben Baila and Yisroel ben Esther HaCohen for a refuah shleimah.

Alongside my usual wishes for a gut shabbes, I’d like to wish all my readers, friends and family the happiest of Chanukahs. Last Chanukah I could never have guessed I’d be where I am now, and the love and light in my life shines brighter than any menorah. A Freilichen Chanukah!

Parshas Vayeitzei: The Power of Persistence

This week’s Parsha, Vayeitzei, contains two sisters, a heavenly vision, a deceitful uncle, a massive success, the twelve tribes of Israel, and in the midst of all of this- a great deal of persistence. It tells us about the Patriarch Yaakov, and about his journey to Charan, fleeing Esov’s wrath. There he works for his uncle Laban and falls in love with Laban’s daughter, Rachel. His love for her is so great that he promises to work for Laban for seven years in order to marry her. Laban deceives him, and he ends up married to Leah, the older daughter, who is initially despised by her new husband and her sister. But Yaakov persists, and pledges another seven years’ work in order to marry Rachel almost straightaway. He fathers the 12 tribes of Israel, and longs to return home. Laban convinces him to stay with the offer of sheep, and he does, before finally leaving in secret. G-d warns Laban not to harm him, and the two make a peaceful pact, before Yaakov arrives in the Holy Land.

Ultimately, Yaakov is a successful man. This is, of course, due to the blessings which G-d bestowed upon him. But it is also due to his own personality; his own work; his own achievements. Mostly, it is due to the fact that Yaakov never gave up. He underwent trials and difficulties. He was hated by his own brother; deceived by his own uncle; and forced to work for the latter for 14 years. And yet, because he knew G-d was with him, he persevered. And he found success; he married the woman he loved; he fathered the 12 tribes of Israel; he amassed land and property; he made peace with Laban; and he reached the Holy Land. Spiritually, Yaakov was also a success. It’s easy to attribute this to his position as a Patriarch, but in truth, every Jew is as Holy as Yaakov (or, for that matter, Moshe Rabbenu).

Instead, his spiritual power and accomplishment stemmed from the same trait as his material success; perseverance. He persisted. He prevailed. He strove to constantly reach new spiritual heights. Whatever you want to call it, Yaakov did it. He simply would not give up. Having been chased out of home by one’s brother, made to work for seven years, or tricked into marrying the wrong woman, many would have simply given in. They would’ve had enough, and set aside the task they’d originally planned to complete. In many ways, this is perfectly understandable; but it is not the attribute of a warrior, or a winner. Or of Yaakov, who achieved the greatest things in his life through sheer persistence. When dealing with the difficulties we face in our lives, or when navigating the modern world, we are always told to live in the moment. This means to look to the current Parsha for advice.

Parshas Vayeitzei is very relevant to many people, and for many reasons. In fact, it strikes a chord with everyone who has ever persevered with anything. And that’s pretty much all of us. There’s hardly a person in this world who hasn’t faced some massive struggle, persisted, and won. Even the smallest struggles count. Perhaps it’s trying to track down a lost item; make a difficult journey; get a promotion at work; or even make shabbes in the midst of the chaos which rules our lives. These are all parallels to what Yaakov did. Yaakov’s determination ruled every part of his life, including his religion, work, and personal relationships. And these areas are relevant to all of us. We can all struggle with these areas, and we can all improve in them. And if the question is how, the answer is to look to the Parsha. To look to Yaakov. To finish what we start, but not to finish until we’re satisfied.

Currently, we’re in the month of Kislev. Kislev is a month of illumination. This may seem counter intuitive, considering the days are getting increasingly shorter and the weather increasingly colder. If we’re to have a month of light, why not in summer? The answer to this question is simple. Kislev is not a month of light; it’s a month of illumination. Illumination occurs when we bring light into darkness; when we dispel darkness. This can’t be done if it’s already bright. In part, this is achieved by two festivals, namely Yud Tes Kislev and Chanukah. But as always, it’s up to us to make the effort. We can’t simply be done with it; like Yaakov, we have to strive for improvement. And once again, it’s Yaakov who holds the key to illumination.

If we want to illuminate the world around us, when both the sky and the global situation (war; division; anti-Semitism) are dark, we’re going to need to work hard. We’re going to need to light Chanukah candles and shabbes candles. We’re going to need to give tzedekah, and perform mitzvot, and help those in need. If we want to bring light into the world, it’ll involve physical action. Visiting the sick. Feeding the poor. Helping the needy. And of course, this isn’t easy. Sometimes, it’ll seem impossible. So what do we do? We turn to the Parsha. We read of Yaakov’s struggles, and challenges, and, ultimately, successes. And we learn from this. And we act upon it.

Spreading Light (Kislev)

I wish I’d thought of this around Rosh Chodesh. Maybe I was busy (no excuse), maybe I was caught up with other article ideas, maybe I simply never thought of doing a Kislev article. But it’s better late than never, so I am going to start with my explanation of what Kislev is about. Kislev is a month of illumination. It’s a month when the darkness around us- as the days get shorter and the weather gets colder- gives way to the illumination of Chanukah and Yud Tes Kislev, both celebrations of light. It’s a time when the problems in our life are dispelled in the same way darkness is dispelled by a solitary light. So for the duration of Kislev, I want to share ideas for illumination. Ideas for illuminating our lives, and the lives of those around us. As the Rebbe zt”l famously said, in times of darkness, we need to increase the light in the world.

My first idea on spreading light is to illuminate our homes with the light of Shabbes. Why am I mentioning this when it’s only Tuesday? Because that leaves several days in which you can purchase your first set of Shabbes candlesticks and learn about their beauty and importance. Many of my readers are observant, and will have already done this; that doesn’t stop this from being applicable. Instead, one can teach others about the importance of kindling Shabbes candles. Can you think of a friend, relative or neighbour who could do with more light in their life? Let’s face it; we all could. By introducing her to this beautiful mitzvah, you don’t only let her connect with the matriarchs every week; you also offer brochos and protection to her home. This is the true power of light; the light of Shabbes, and the light of Kislev.

Gut voch (Thoughts for Kislev)

I hope that everyone enjoyed a most wonderful shabbes, and that the next week holds simchos and brochos for us all. And the whole month of Kislev, too. It’s a joyous month, and I would truly love it if I could feel joyous for the whole month. Or even for just Chanukah, or maybe one shabbes. I’m trying to remember the last time that happened and I can’t. Maybe years ago. Chabad told me, ”why complain about the darkness when you can turn on the lights?”. Well, partly because Jewish women love complaining. But mostly because I can’t find the light switch. I’m in a room with millions of switches and I just hope one of them is going to work. But I’m beginning to think I’ve tried them all.

I know you aren’t reading this. But I miss the old you. I don’t know if there are words enough to sum up my love. Imagine the kind of love which led me to cross oceans, to walk through fire, to give my all and happily, too. I had that love, and I still have it. But I wish I’d crossed those oceans and walked through those flames. Instead I sunk ships and burnt bridges and I don’t think you’re here anymore. It’s my fault. I messed up, big time. But maybe I still have a right to weep, to remember, to regret. Because believe me, I’ve wept more tears than I knew I had. Someone told me- maybe it was the Chazal- that even when the gates of Heaven are closed to tefillos, they’re open to tears. I wonder if one day G-d will help me. I wonder if He sees me. And I wonder when He’ll stop punishing me. This has to be a punishment. Or is it? I sometimes wonder if this is His way of teaching me something. Maybe he’s helping me and I’m just refusing to accept it. I hope that one day the old you comes back to me. Because I’m waiting.

Honestly, I feel as if I’ve descended into the darkest pit in the world. But the problem is, even in the deepest, darkest pit, just a little light can dispel the darkness. Unless- there’s no oxygen. No flame can be born without oxygen. So before I can light a fire, I need to get to a place with oxygen. If Kislev is the flame, the light, what’s the oxygen? I can’t have a joyous Kislev without it. Such a simple problem. Such a common one. But when you don’t know what the oxygen is, it’s impossible. Maybe I’ll find it, but I can’t do it alone. I know that truly I can’t be alone when my soul cleaves to Hashem, but that only serves to make this all more complicated.

Rather than thinking that because Hashem is with me, it’ll all work out, I feel ungrateful. Hashem answered my prayers just this morning. How long did I spend praying for a miracle? Not nearly enough time. And there; there was my miracle. I don’t understand it myself; how, when so many miracles are bestowed upon me, can I be so ungrateful? How can I despair every minute of the day, hate every minute of my life, weep every minute of the night? If I don’t understand it, I can hardly blame anyone else for not understanding it. If I were a member of a Chossidic community, I’d be kicked out for writing this. But I’m not a member. I never will be. I’m the one who sits in the corner on her own. And that’s okay; I think it’s the best way to learn about the people around you. If I were a better judge of character, I’d say more than this; but I’ve been blessed with meeting some very interesting people, and even a few wonderful ones.

At the end of the day, this is really nobody’s fault but my own. I’m alone in this world and no-one owes me anything. I wonder where I went wrong.

An Increase In Light

The Rebbe zt”l famously declared that in times of darkness, what we need the most is an increase of light. While there is violence, division, and immorality in the world, we find ourselves shrouded in darkness. But if you light just one, small candle in a pitch-black room, the light immediately dispells the darkness. This analogy is no coincidence. The Rebbe’s words apply, most famously and most importantly, to the mitzvah of shabbes candles. The unique mitzvah of a Jewish woman, the mitzvah with power to bring light to an entire household. But these past few days, we have been seeing light of an entirely different sort. Kinus HaShluchim, the annual gathering of Chabad rabbonim, is a very special kind of gathering. It features over five and a half thousand people, all in a single room. And every single one of these people has a very special job description; increasing the amount of light in the world.

Parshas Bereishis: Light and Darkness

This week’s Parsha, Bereishis, is the first in the Torah. It’s also probably the best known, for it tells the tale of creation. In six days, Hashem creates darkness and light, the heavens, the land and the waters surrounding it, the sun and moon, the animals, and man and woman. Each of Hashem’s creations has it’s own special, unique purpose. For example, the luminaries in the sky are to calculate the times of the festivals, and the wild beasts of the Earth are for man to rule over and put to good use. It’s impossible to deny that each of the things Hashem brings to life, or into being, over the first six days, is essential. It’s necessary. It’s unique. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have created it. But what about the seventh day? Why should Hashem create a day- but not do anything with it? Why is this day special, remembered in an everlasting covenant between the Jewish people and their G-d?
At first glance, the seventh day looks like the day on which Hashem did not create anything. But in fact, it was on this day that he devised the most important invention of all. Menuchah. What is menuchah? Quite simply; rest. Renewal. It’s the all-important break, without which, sustained activity and creativity would be impossible. Could we live without the sun, the moon, the waters of the earth, or the vegetables and animals? No. But they are physical, material things. Shabbos, and, indeed, menuchah, is the absence of such a thing. It’s the ”nothing” which makes the ”something” special. It’s a gift; a great gift, and one bestowed only to the Jewish people. While all the nations of theĀ  world share one Earth, and indeed one Heavens, Shabbos is unique, exclusive. It’s an end- an end to the week- but it’s also a beginning. Inspiration and renewal begin with Shabbos. The oasis in time is truly an oasis for the body as well as the soul.
And yet, Shabbos was the last thing G-d created. The first things were darkness and light. Darkness can be useful, necessary even. It’s darkness which allows certain plants to grow, and animals to thrive, and darkness which helps us set our schedules and usher in the festivals. But symbolically, darkness is rarely a positive. More often than not, it represents a lack of positivity. And what is this positivity? Light. Light from the sun. Light from the fire of the Torah. Light from a Jewish soul. And the light we are shrouded by each week, by the aura of the Shabbos candles. In this way, both Hashem’s first and last inventions are linked. Shabbos candles represent both creation- the creation of heat and light- and rest- for they mark the halachic beginning of the day of rest.
To paraphrase the Rebbe zt”l, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of Lubavitch, when we find ourselves living in dark times, we must increase the amount of light. How can we do this? By lighting shabbos candles. This mitzvah applies mainly to women, though adult men light candles if there are no women present. By lighting two candles (or more- mainly women add an extra candle for each of their children) and reciting the brocha, a woman can help bring peace not just to herself and her family but also to Israel. Just as in the times of Noah, corruption and violence were rife, we are living in days of immorality, anti-Semitism and crime. Just one extra mitzvah- one extra woman lighting Shabbos candles- could bring about the Redemption and the coming of Moshiach. Just as Bereishis marked the beginning of creation, this will mark the beginning of the World to Come.