By Rabbi Eric Yanoff
A 7-year-old member of my synagogue once asked me, “Rabbi, which is the most important candle on the chanukiyah (Chanukah menorah)?” What a great question!
At first I wondered aloud: Is it the shammash, whose job it is to light the others? Perhaps. After all, we learn in the Talmud (Shabbat 122a): “Ner l’echad, ner l’me’ah” — a candle that can light one other has the same kindling power as a candle that can light a hundred others without itself being diminished.
Indeed, that is the role that rabbis, educators, parents, guardians and others embrace for ourselves — that we gain emotional strength and inspiration by lighting a spark in others. Are we, like the shammash, the most important candle?
But then, the tables were turned, and my young congregant reasoned aloud, “But rabbi, the shammash doesn’t even count toward the number of days on the chanukiyah! Sure, it makes the other ones count, but if it goes out, we’re still fine, the mitzvah is still fulfilled, right?”
I paused. I smiled. And as has happened in many of my best times as a rabbi, the tables turned: I wondered who the shammash is now? Who is lighting whom? Who is teaching whom? And then he offered a different interpretation: The most important candle, he suggested, is the next one to be lit.
Yes, the next candle is most important. After all, each successive night of Chanukah we light the newest day’s candle first. It is in keeping with the sage Hillel, who famously explained why we add a candle each night with the overriding Jewish value ma’alin ba-kodesh v’ein moridin — that we should always strive to grow in holiness and never to diminish. We should constantly seek that next candle, that newest spark.
And here’s why that next light is the most important light: Because at the moment just before it is ignited, it could go either way. The flame, the relationship, the curiosity, the Jewish connection could be nurtured — or extinguished. That’s also why it’s so important, what we do with each of those opportunities to “light up” a person curious about Judaism. It’s why we are desperate to not miss a single chance — each chance, each time — each candle, each child, each person of any age, seeking to be “lit up,” Jewishly, a little bit more.
In a sense, when I was asked that question about which candle is most important, the asker was the answer. The fact that this young asker was curious was my chance to light the newest and, in that moment, most important flame. Because each time, it can go either way. Each time, it’s that crucial.
We learn this from the last verse of our Torah portion this week: After Joseph, locked in a dungeon with Pharaoh’s cupbearer, interprets the wine steward’s dream to mean that he will be freed, and he is, we read: “V’lo zachar sar ha-mashkim et-Yosef, vayishkacheihu — The cup-bearer did not remember Joseph, but rather forgot him entirely” (Genesis 40:23). This person, brought forth into freedom, quickly forgot that there was another person who had given him hope in the darkness of Pharaoh’s dungeon.
The commentator Bekhor Shor interprets the odd repetition in the verse — both that the cupbearer “did not remember” and that he “forgot” — with the understanding that this forgetfulness was not out of purposeful, mindful hatred, but that Joseph simply fell out of his thoughts. Joseph and his impressive dream interpretation faded benignly away, not due to malice, but like a skill that falls out of practice, it atrophied, fell to the side, dehabituated and unattended.
The cupbearer just moved on from that interaction that had sparked a candle of hope. He just kept going, living his life, as if that miracle had not happened. And once forgotten, if it does not remain, appreciated and remembered and embraced and inspiring — then it might as well have not happened.
We cannot forget like that. In this moment, we, too, are in a dark time. Though I am in awe of our sense of innovation and resilience, many of our most redemptive practices (Jewishly and otherwise) have fallen into disuse, out of necessity to protect against the pandemic — how we gather, celebrate, comfort and hope. Desperate after these many months for some glimmer of hope, we may now see the very beginnings of a light to guide us along a path ahead. Let us not forget that the next step, the next spark, if we choose to ignite it, may be the most critical.
Because we know, from all of the less-than-encouraging news over many months, that that next light is far from a sure thing. And yet Hillel reminds us, ma’alin ba-kodesh: The best is yet to come. Candle by candle, moment by moment, despite the odds, we add light, we improve, we illumine a path through the darkness, raising ever higher in holiness and hope.
Rabbi Eric Yanoff is one of the rabbis at Adath Israel in Merion Station and is co-president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.