This year more than ever we await with great anticipation the beginning of the Festival of Lights.
Chanukah, is a time for family, for celebrating freedom, and most of all, the miracle of light in our lives. This year our celebrations may be significantly curtailed, but our need to focus on the meaning of the festival is therefore all the more intense. Yet it has always been my belief that the most important day of Chanukah is the 9th day, and that too is all the more important this year. Let me explain.
In the Talmud the schools of Hillel and Shammai disagree about the order in which the Chanukah lights should be lit. According to the school of Shammai we should light eight lights the first night and decrease the number by one every day following. However, according to the school of Hillel we should light one light the first night and add another on each subsequent night. In explaining his rationale Hillel invokes the principle: “We always strive to increase holiness, not to diminish it.”
Following the ruling of the school of Hillel the most challenging night of the festival is the 9th! After eight nights of bringing a little more holiness into the world, not only by our lighting candles, but also by our focusing our energy on those values that are most important to us through the rituals and the celebrations, we come to the ninth night and we are still faced with the need to bring yet more holiness into the world. But without a ritual to guide us, how will we accomplish this?
That is the question that Mussar practice comes to answer not only on the 9th night of Chanukah, but throughout the year. How, indeed, will we add holiness to the world every night and every day? Meditating on that question is the crux of Mussar practice and the subject of Mussar study. We try to identify the ways in our own lives we have the possibility of bringing more holiness rather than diminishing the holiness in the world. Each of us uses our Cheshbon haNefesh, our soul stock taking, to try to determine how we can answer the question.
Chanukah has many different aspects, but Hillel’s challenge remains the most meaningful for me: “How will I increase holiness tomorrow rather than diminish it?” Regardless of the challenges of 2020, if we focus on this question and practice, the lights will illuminate as never before.
Rabbi Ira F. Stone