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When You(r Lights) Fail

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Dec 9, 2020

In spite of its rabbinic origins, the details of the mitzvah of lighting Chanuka lights generally point to it being a very serious and important mitzvah. For one, it is labeled as “pirsumei nisa,” the publicizing of a miracle, a designation limited to very few mitzvot and carrying with it the responsibility to fundraise or even sell the shirt off one’s back to afford its fulfillment. 

Additionally, the mitzvah of lighting the Chanuka candles was constructed in a very unique way; the basic requirement of ner ish uveiso requires only one light be lit per household, but better methods of fulfillment were created as well. We may perform mehadrin, lighting a candle for each member of the household, or mehadrin min hamehadrin, taking into account which night of the Chanukah miracle we are commemorating. The construction of this mitzvah seems to challenge us to eschew the basic performance and instead adopt the most challenging version of the mitzvah, which is commonly performed in all Jewish homes.

While these details seem to indicate a strict posture toward this mitzvah, there is one halacha that seems to defy its gravity. The basic requirement for lighting the Chanukah candles is that the candles have enough fuel to last for a half hour. What if the candle (or candles) goes out before the half hour has passed? The Gemara, Shabbos 21a-21b, discusses this question. While R’ Huna holds that it must be relit, both R’ Chisda and R’ Zeira hold that “kavsa ein zakuk la,” that if it is extinguished, it need not be relit. The halacha follows this opinion and while many suggest that we should relight the candles if they go out before the minimum time, it is only an added stringency to do so and not an actual obligation. Rashba (Responsa 1:539) adds that even if it did not extinguish on its own, but rather if in an attempt to adjust the flame you mistakenly extinguished it, there is still no obligation to relight the wick.

If this mitzvah really is of such significance and there is a minimum amount of fuel that lighting requires, why would we not be required to actually make use of that fuel? Why would the candles need to be prepared so that they may last for a half hour, but then not be required to relight them if they falter?

Bnei Yisaschar (Kislev/Teves no. 3) explains that the Chanukah lights need not be relit because they represent Torah’s wisdom and its study. He posits that it is this very specific halachic feature that highlights the significant difference that exists between Torah study and the study of all other disciplines. He says that when it comes to Torah, even if we study a topic but are unable to come to a halachic determination or even worse, we come to an incorrect one, our reward is as if the law was determined correctly. Contrast this to other areas of study, where a mistake or an “incomplete” receives no credit. 

The lights of Chanukah — and light generally — represents the radiance of Torah. The pasuk states:

כִּי נֵר מִצְוָה וְתוֹרָה אוֹר וְדֶרֶךְ חַיִּים תּוֹכְחוֹת מוּסָר.

For the commandment is a lamp, the teaching is a light, And the way to life is the rebuke that disciplines. 

Mishlei 6:23

Even if our intention and hope is to have the lights last and continue through their required minimum length of time, if they fail, credit is fully provided for this mitzvah. 

The Chofetz Chayim popularized this idea in a comment (Chofetz Chayim Al HaTorah) on Rashi in Parshas Bechukosai (26:3). Rashi interprets the command of im bechukosai telechu (if you follow My commandments) to demand “shetihiyu ameilim BaTorah” — that we work laboriously on Torah. The Chofetz Chayim explains that the emphasis on the “labor” required for Torah reminds us that unlike other occupations where results are the determining factor in assessing success, when it comes to Torah study, the rules are different. This, he explains, is the meaning of the expression of gratitude for Torah that we recite at a siyum upon the completion of a Torah project:

 אָנו עֲמֵלִים וּמְקַבְּלִים שָׂכָר וְהֵם עֲמֵלִים וְאֵינָם מְקַבְּלִים שָׂכָר

We toil and receive reward while they toil and do not receive reward. 

While all industries might toil equally, the effort expended in Torah study results in reward even if the project goes unfinished or is finished poorly. 

This tolerance or even embrace of failure in the process of Torah study is found in other contemporary sources as well. R’ Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky (known as the “Steipler Gaon”) writes (Kreina D’igresa Vol. II pp. 4-5) how an aspiring student of Torah should write down his “chiddushim,” his innovations and insights. While we might very well imagine that the Steipler’s concept of “chiddushim” are reserved for those students at the upper echelons of Torah study, he explains: 

חידוש נקרא כשנתברר לך פרטי הסוגי’ מה שבתחילה טעית וחשבת אחרת, או איזו הסבר לדבר שלא הבנת מתחלה טעמו. 

A chiddush is where there was a detail of a topic about which you made a mistake and learned incorrectly (and since figured out) or an explanation for something that you originally did not understand.

The Stiepler explains that the process of “chiddush” is not about objective intellectual originality, but the process of uncovering what is new to this particular student. “Chiddush” does not only refer to those great ideas that no one has ever heard, but also to the ideas that were “new to us,” that we only learned due to our first-timer failures and amateurish mistakes.  

The menorah sometimes extinguishes even after all our preparation and efforts to light it. That might not be the result we planned, but it is a result we can still feel good about, particularly when there are so many forces that attempt to smother and sabotage our efforts.

R’ Aryeh Tzvi Frumer (Eretz Hatzvi, Chanukah 5688) applies this lesson to the challenges of galus (exile). He writes how the light of the menorah is meant to inspire our stay in exile and metaphorically shine through the darkness and lack of clarity of the galus. At the same time, the haze and distractions of the galus can make it difficult to fully follow through on a person’s religious plans. This halacha of preparing our lights reminds us that like the Chanukah lights must be fully fueled and energetically arranged in its multiple layers of mehadrin, we must also ensure that we start with the necessary requirements and enthusiasm to inspire ourselves and our children educationally. But this same halacha reassures us that just as we cannot guarantee that our lights will carry out the mission we planned and extinguish when they are supposed to, so too we may not know to what end our Torah education will shine through the haze. Our requirement is to try our best. 

In a yeshiva system focused on grades and objective measures of accomplishment, we might do well in remembering that despite the strict contours of the mitzvah of Chanukah lights, they seem to provide an apt lesson in handling and overcoming failure and reminding us how to judge true success. Let us focus our energies on giving our children and our students the most fuel, encouragement, and the best opportunities we can. We know that even if we provide the light, invest the energies, thoughtfully educate, and appropriately partner, whatever happens next is out of our hands. The candle may not ultimately shine as bright or as long as we hoped for, but we still must make every effort to notice the efforts that have been made to keep it alit.  


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Learning on the Marcos and Adina Katz YUTorah site is sponsored today by Barry and Marcia Levinson in honor of Rabbi Eliron & Devorah Levinson and their children, and Rabbi Aviyam & Rina Levinson and their children and by the Spira Family l'ilui nishmas Chanoch ben Moshe Chaim and by the Katzman Family of Great Neck wishing Shana Tova to Klal Yisrael