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KEEPING THE FLAME ALIVE

By: Rabbi Eli J. Mansour



A boss calls in his secretary and hands her a document.

“Please make me seven copies of this by the end of the day,” he politely requests.

The secretary takes the papers, returns to her desk, finishes the work she had been doing, and then goes to the copy machine and makes the copies.  She knocks on her boss’ door, enters the room, and hands him the papers.

The boss counts the papers and sees that seven copies had been made just as he had requested.

“You are an outstanding secretary,” he enthuses.  “You made exactly seven copies, not six or eight.  You did exactly what I asked.  That is really outstanding.  You do amazing work.  You’re terrific!”

Most of us would agree that the boss’ response is a bit overdone, to the point of being comical and bizarre.  After all, the secretary just did a relative simple task she was told to do.  Certainly, a warm and sincere “thank you” is warranted, but does she deserve such effusive praise for making seven copies as she was asked?

This is a question that many rabbis asked concerning a comment made by Rashi to a verse in Sefer Bamidbar.

In the beginning of Parashat Behaalotecha (8:1-2), Gd conveys to Moshe the basic laws concerning the kindling of the menorahin the Bet Hamikdash, a ritual performed by the kohanim.  The Torah then tells that Aharon, the kohen gadol(high priest), complied with these instructions (“Vaya’as ken Aharon”).  Rashi comments that this verse is intended to give praise to Aharon, “shelo shina” – for not deviating from Gd’s commands.  Aharon was deserving of special praise, Rashi tells us, for kindling the menorah the way Gd instructed him to, and not deviating at all from these guidelines.

Aharon, as we know from numerous other sources, was a towering spiritual giant.  He was beloved by the entire nation for his peacemaking efforts, and was chosen by Gd as the first kohen gadol and founder of the only priestly tribe.  And for what does he receive special praise?  “Shelo shina” – because he complied with Gd’s commands to kindle the menorah.  What was so spectacular about this particular mitzvah that warranted such effusive praise?  What was it about Aharon’s kindling of the menorah that made it so special and noteworthy?

Kosher Addictions

A little over a decade ago, a group of wonderful congregants from my synagogue approached me and asked that I deliver a daily Daf Yomi class, studying a daf (two sides of a page) of Talmud each morning.  I was initially very hesitant, wondering how long such an undertaking could last.  As anyone who learns Gemara knows, the material is extremely intricate and difficult.  There is a hardly a line in the Talmud upon which pages upon pages of commentary have not been written.  And so while I know that many Jews around the world follow the Daf Yomi program, I wondered whether I’d be able to properly and meaningfully study an entire page with a group of men each day.

I decided to try, and sure enough, we persisted.  Day after day, one masechet (tractate) after another.  After seven-and-a-half years, we completed the entire Talmud. 

Afterward, we considered stopping and moving on to something else.  Now that we’ve been through the entire Talmud, we figured, perhaps we should choose some other text for our daily learning session.  What we found, however, was that we were simply unable to stop.  After imbibing the words of the Talmud each morning for so many years, we couldn’t manage without it.  It was like our morning coffee.  We couldn’t give it up.  And so we began studying again from the beginning.

This is what we might call a “kosher addiction” – getting “hooked” on something positive and worthwhile.  Other examples of “kosher addictions” are charity and hesed.  If a person has the practice of putting a dollar in the charity box each day, he is “hooked,” and will not easily give it up.  If a person attends the annual fundraiser of a certain organization each year, without fail, for many years, he can’t stop.  He’s addicted.  And I would venture to say that all men are “addicted” to tefillineach day, and that we are all “hooked” on Shabbat.  When we do something consistently over an extended period of time, and it becomes part and parcel of our expected routine, we find it difficult to just give it up. 

Of course, there are negative and destructive addictions, as well.  Smokers and alcoholics are where they are not because they smoked one cigarette or drank one drink – though obviously this is how it began – but rather because they did so repeatedly until they formed an addiction.  Repeating actions creates a pattern of behavior which in turn becomes, on one level or another, addictive.  Our challenge is to avoid the harmful addictions and develop the “kosher” addictions.  We need to establish healthy routines and then stick to them until they become habitual and difficult to break.

The Midrash tells that several great sages were asked to identify the most important verse in the entire Torah.  The most famous answer is that of Rabbi Akiva, who pointed to the command, “Ve’ahavta le’re’acha kamocha– You shall love your fellow as yourself.”  Less famous, though no less understandable, is the response given by a different rabbi, who cited the first verse of the Shematext: “Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokenu Hashem Ehad – Hear O Israel, Hashem our God – Hashem is one.”  There is, however, a third answer given to this question, one which might, at first glance, strike us as unusual.  One rabbi responded by citing a verse later in the Book of Bamidbar (28:4) describing the mitzvahof the korban tamid – the daily sacrifice in the Bet Hamikdash: “Et hakeves ha’ehad taaseh baboker ve’et hakeves hasheni taaseh ben ha’arbayim – You shall offer one sheep in the morning, and offer one sheep in the afternoon.”  Why would this rank among the most important verses in the Torah?  The answer lies in the central importance of routine in religious life.  We need to accustom ourselves to “one sheep in the morning,” and “one sheep in the afternoon,” to daily, weekly, monthly and yearly routines of religious observance.  This is how we become “addicted” to Torah and mitzvotso they become integral part of our lives and of our beings.

This is one explanation that has been suggested for the praise given to Aharon.  The words “lo shina” can be read to mean, “he did not repeat.”  Aharon did not need to repeat the act of kindling the menorahfor it to become second nature.  For people of his stature, the divine command itself makes the act natural and instinctive.  When somebody is absolutely devoted to Gd and committed to performing His will, mitzvotare habitual the moment they are given.  And so already the first time Aharon kindled the menorah, it was done naturally, as if by habit.  Such was the level of his commitment to serve his Creator and fulfill His commands.

Familiarity Breeds Contempt

There is also an additional approach that has been taken to explain Rashi’s remark.

There is an old saying that “familiarity breeds contempt.”  When two people meet and discover how much they have in common and how much they enjoy speaking to one another, there is a certain degree of excitement in the relationship.  With time, however, boredom can set in, the friendship can become stale, and the excitement could easily dissipate and fade.

This is true not just of relationships between people, but also of our relationship to anything.  When a New Yorker walks on 34th St. in Manhattan, he doesn’t even think of the fact that he is passing in front of the Empire State Building.  But when a tourist, visiting the Big Apple for the first time, walks the same route, he walks with his head turned upward, marveling at the majestic sight.  This is especially so in our day and age, when we get bored and tired with everything so quickly.  We need to buy a new car and a new mobile device every couple of years; people get tired of their jobs; people need to regularly renovate their homes; and every year we need a new destination for our get-away. 

This is one of the great challenges of Torah life, which, as discussed, is built upon a foundation of habit and routine.  The Torah demands consistently followed the routine of mitzvot, but in our restlessness, we get bored and need something new.  The result is religious observance that is emotionless and robotic.  Too often, we do mitzvot just to get them over with, to check them off the “to do” list, so we can move on to more exciting things.  And it’s not entirely our fault.  Actions performed repeatedly over the course of many years tend to become unexciting, and, as mentioned, we live in a time when we are accustomed to always seeking something new.  Understandably, we often find it difficult to generate the excitement and fervor that should accompany Torah study and observance.  Just as bar mitzvah boys put on their tefillin with great enthusiasm and passion the first several weeks or months, but gradually lose their excitement, we all tend to lose our passion with time, as familiarity takes its toll on our emotions and leads us to – though not outright “contempt” – a lack of interest and passion.

There are, however, exceptions to this rule.  Great tzadikim live with a keen awareness of the immense privilege we have to serve Gd.  While the rest of us are led astray and attracted by the vanity of materialism and worldly pleasures, the righteous sages are able to maintain a proper perspective and are forever mindful of the inestimable value of each and every moment spent in the service of Gd.  And so they truly relish every word of Torah they study and every mitzvahact they perform.  No matter how many times they do it, they are still excited each and every time, keenly aware as they are of what it means to serve the Almighty.

It has been suggested that this is Rashi’s intent when he praises Aharon “shelo shina” – for not “changing.”  Although the kindling of the menorahis performed each and every day, Aharon never “changed”; he remained just as enthusiastic the 100th time as he was the 70th time, the 50th time, the 10th time and the first time.  Recognizing the value of each and every mitzvahact, Aharon performed his duties each day with the same level of enthusiasm, overcome by joy at the privilege he had to serve Gd.

The Message of the Six Candles

One question, however, remains: what about the rest of us?  What can we do to keep the flame alive, to maintain passion and enthusiasm in religious life in our age of “new and improved,” when today’s technological wonder is tomorrow’s dinosaur, and when last year’s purchases are already seen as antique relics?

To find the answer, we need simply to step into a typical yeshiva or kollel.  When we walk into the bet midrash (study hall), we see men who have been studying for years, excitedly wrestling with difficult texts, studying them with zeal and fervor.  They go back for more day after day, year and year, with passion and enthusiasm that never wanes, and in many cases grows even stronger as time passes.  How is this possible?  How can these students keep the fire of passion burning for so long?

Very simply, they remain excited because studying Torah always reveals something new.  A scholar can review the same line of Gemara for the 200th time and still arrive at some new insight.  Volumes upon volumes of literature are written every year by scholars seeking to shed new light on our ancient texts.  Torah wisdom never ends, and always offers something new. 

This, then, is the key to keeping up our excitement: learning.  When we learn Torah, we can’t grow bored, because we will always uncover something new and come upon an idea or insight we had never heard before.

This might very well be the reason why this ideal of sustained enthusiasm was embodied specifically by Aharon, and specifically in reference to the menorah.  The Torah here in Parashat Behaalotecha instructs that the flames in the six lamps of the menorah should all be turned towards the middle.  The holy books explain that the six lamps symbolize the six sections of the Mishna, the basic text of the oral tradition.  These lamps are turned towards the middle lamp, which symbolizes the written law, the text of the Torah.  The written Torah, of course, is fixed and limited, but the oral law is infinite.  There are constantly new ideas waiting to be unearthed by the scholars of each generation.  The six lamps are turned towards the middle because the oral law serves to illuminate and clarify the text of the written law.

The kindling of the menorah was performed by Aharon, because he represents the oral law.  The six sections of the Mishna are Zeraim, Moed, Nashim, Nezikin, Kodashim and Taharot, and the first letters of these names (zayin, mem, nun, nun, kuf and tet) have the combined numerical value of 256 – the same as the numerical value of the name “Aharon.”  Aharon was able to maintain his excitement for mitzvot because he represented the Torah shebe’al peh, the oral law, which is boundless and always offers something new.  With the oral law, Torah never gets stale or boring.  It is always fresh and exciting.  There’s always something new to learn, a new way to interpret a passage, a new idea to ponder and contemplate.  This is how we “kindle the menorah” anew each day, lighting a new flame of passion and excitement for Torah through regular and intensive study.

Many of us find ourselves on a “high” after the celebration of Shavuot.  There is nothing quite like the experience of spending an entire night immersed in Torah together with one’s community, and then reenacting the acceptance of the Torah at Mount Sinai in the morning.  While it might be unreasonable to expect this special feeling to remain with us all year round, we must do what we can to preserve at least a spark of that raging flame of religious fervor.  And the way we do that is by allocating regular time for intensive Torah study.  This ensures that each and every day, we will be exposed to something new, some new insight and idea that we haven’t known before, generating excitement and keeping our interest piqued.  This is how we can grow to become like Aharon Hakohen, scrupulous in our Torah observance and ever joyful over the privilege we are given to serve our Creator.