One Friday afternoon, Rochi Levitansky, the Chabad emissary to Sumy, Ukraine, decided to visit an elderly Jewish woman and offer her the opportunity to light Shabbat candles. Rochi took along her daughter Mushky and a warm smile for communication, as she hadn't been there long enough to have a working knowledge of the language.
Sumy was once known as a headquarters of the KGB and has a history of religious oppression. Add to that the liquidation of all the local Jews by the Nazis and cooperative locals, and what remains today is a very small Jewish population completely uninformed about Judaism and its practices. Imagine Jews not even familiar with Yom Kippur.
With an address in hand and a bag with some tea lights, Rochi and Mushky took a frightening taxi ride through pot-holed dirt roads, and arrived at a huge complex of apartment buildings. The woman they were to visit lived on the 6th floor. With one look at the ancient creaking elevator Rochi decided it would be safer to use the stairs. After huffing and puffing up the sagging uneven stairs she knocked on the door and discovered she had the wrong address!
Rochi glanced at her watch. Making it back home in time for Shabbat would be at best a tight squeezeRochi made a few cell phone calls to her husband, asking him if he could find someone who could help her locate the woman's address, as the complex was too large for people to know each other. It was getting very late and they had no choice but to start heading down the stairs. They had almost reached the ground floor, when her husband called. He had found the correct address! Indeed it was on the 6th floor, but a different apartment number. Time was running out, but something inside Rochi wouldn't let her go home and light her own candles without giving this woman the opportunity to perform this mitzvah.
They raced back up to the 6th floor. A wheelchair-bound woman gazed in wonder as they introduced themselves and lit Shabbat candles with her. Her eyes stared into the flames. She was completely absorbed and visibly moved…this was probably the first time in her life she had lit a Shabbat or holiday candle.
Rochi glanced at her watch and knew that making it back home in time for Shabbat would be at best a tight squeeze. They flew down the misaligned steps teetering off balance, dove into the taxi and urgently asked the driver to drive as fast as he could to take them back to their home.
Quite a few miles from home the car sputtered and stalled. They had run out of gas in the middle of a large intersection. Sunset was minutes away. The taxi driver insisted he could push his car to a gas station and get them home in about a half hour. They tried as best they could to explain to him that they couldn't travel on Shabbat and would have to leave the taxi and walk.
As the sun was about to set, she called her husband and asked him to light Shabbat candles for them at home.
Rochi usually took along a few extra tea lights on such missions, in case they met someone else as well. But she suddenly realized that she was holding a bag of tea lights, not just the one or two extra she usually brought along. She counted the tea lights; by Divine providence there was exactly the number of candles in the bag for her to light the same number she was accustomed to lighting – one for her, one for her husband, and one for each of her children – as well as one for her daughter to light. Rochi and her daughter would be able light Shabbat candles beside the road before their long trek home.
Rochi was certain that the precise and unusual number of tea lights was a special message from above. They had enabled another Jew to brighten the world with a candle of her own, a new long-awaited light; and in return G‑d made sure their own lights would shine forth as fully as always.
Anatomy of a Lamp
When our physical being (wick) is infused with Torah and mitzvot (Divine fuel), a bright flame results…It is stated that "The soul of man is a lamp of G‑d." We were given life to draw Divine light, the awareness of G‑d, into this world. The combined components of a candle or lamp teach us how this purpose is to be achieved.
A candle has three parts: the wax, wick and flame.
Wax represents Torah and mitzvot.
Wick represents our body and all that we own or with which we engage.
Flame represents the awareness of G‑d, the spiritual light we generate.
The message of the candle is to illuminate the world with recognition of G‑d by saturating the physical and materialistic part of ourselves and our surroundings with spiritual significance.
When our physical being (wick) is infused with Torah and mitzvot (Divine fuel), a bright flame results…the awareness of our Creator in this world.
Every person, with every mitzvah, shines his or her own Divine light in this world. We each have our own unique character, strengths and talents, as well as a particular niche to fill in this world. G‑d provides us with all we need so that we can fulfill our own particular purpose.
Not to Stumble on Wood or Stone
Our sages who instituted the lighting of the Shabbat candles explained that their purpose is to create an atmosphere of happiness and peace in the home. A well-lit room is festive and cheerful. Light is often associated with energy and good spirits. There's that extra buoyancy that the spring or summer sun brings, rejuvenating everyone.
On Shabbat it is forbidden to light a fire. Lighting the candles before Shabbat insures that the home is lit and the household won't be left in the dark Friday night.
In explaining how the candles' light causes peace and harmony, our sages use the expression, "So that people won't stumble on wood or stone," a scenario that could cause frustration and friction. This expression, "stumbling on wood or stone," contains an additional and deeper message. Wood and stone are often used in the Torah as code words for idols and idolatry. The Torah mocks the absurd practice of taking such inanimate objects and worshipping them as if they had power of their own.
While we may be less exposed to this form of idol worship, we can still fall into the trap of attributing power and influence to an entity other than G‑d. We may assume that we are in control of our success or destiny. We may feel dependent on the good graces of a boss, government body or even nature. All these are forms of idol worship… For at its essence, idolatry is the notion that there is another power separate from G‑d, that there's a place outside of His influence.
When we have this clarity, we look at ourselves, our relationships and our purpose in a whole new wayIn truth, everything is completely in G‑d's hands. Although the world appears autonomous, every atom, every cell, every wave of energy, is constantly dependent on G‑d for its existence. On a personal level, too, we must acknowledge that all our talents, skills and strengths are gifts from G‑d. He enables us to excel, create and achieve; we cannot claim credit. When we have this clarity, we look at ourselves, our relationships and our purpose in a whole new way. We can then live a life of peace, harmony, happiness and purpose.
The Shabbat candles ensure that we don't stumble over "wood and stones."
What Distinguishes the Happy from the Depressed
There are distinct traits that happy people exhibit, and typical pitfalls that generate depression. Happy people count their blessing; they cherish life's gifts and don't take them for granted. They are appreciative and proactive, always looking to engage and participate in the world. When people get stuck in depressive moods they often make the following mistakes:
- Feel themselves as victims that are slated for the unfortunate bumps of life, cemented to situations out of their control, resigned to their lot.
- Are let down by expectations they had or entitlements they felt they deserved.
- Wait to be rescued by others.
- Learn how to effectively blame difficulties on something or somebody else, shirking responsibility.
I was once given a vivid mental image of these two states, when reading something that Professor Yermiyahu Branover says to have heard from the Lubavitch Rebbe:
What is the unique quality of the sun, which makes everyone consider it a blessing? It is, of course, its capacity to give light to the earth.
What would happen if the sun had the same temperature, the same energy, but did not radiate or give heat? Indeed, there are such stars, called black holes, the force of attraction of which is so strong that not even one light ray can depart from them. If the sun were such a star, whom would it interest then? Of what use would the sun be if it were a black hole?
So it is with the Jew whose primary function is to put forth light, to radiate, to better his fellow man through the mitzvah of Ahavat Yisrael. Without this, he would turn into a black hole, when he was created to be a sun.
We are meant to be lamps of G‑d, illuminating like the sun. When we are happy we project outward, we want to give, love and accomplish. We praise, thank and bless. We shine and radiate.
What would happen if the sun had the same temperature, the same energy, but did not radiate or give heat?Depression is sucking all that energy inward, getting self-absorbed, and looking to take and receive as we retreat. Everything is grey and dark like a big black hole, gloom and doom. We don't appreciate ourselves or recognize any brightness. Being in the dark and living a life of illusions can cause depression and painful mental turmoil to ourselves and those we love.
The Shabbat Light
Within this general context we can understand how transformative a sense of clarity and truth can be in achieving happiness. When we recognize that it is G‑d who controls the world then we must accept that everything that happens is Divine Providence whether or not we can see or sense it. This awareness eliminates the possibility of "falling victim"; every experience has a purpose, and is part of G‑d's plan.
We can search to discover how to bring meaning and growth to these difficult times, tapping into resources deep within us, yet to be retrieved. This perspective destroys the myth of entitlements and expectations. G‑d gives us what He wishes, most often more generously than what we really deserve. G‑d gives us the strengths and materials we need to overcome our challenges. He knows our needs best and determines what our lot will be. Is there anyone more kind than the creator of kindness to depend on? Who is there left to blame if everything that happens is meant to be? There is a sense of peace and tranquility we can experience when we know and really internalize that G‑d, in whom we can place our hope and trust, is in control.
We can unburden our worries, realizing that G‑d is in charge. What remains for us is to make the right choices. It is up to us to value and appreciate the gifts G‑d gives us and accept the responsibility to use them as He desires us to. He knows each of our potentials; having designed us specifically for the role He wants us to play in making this a magnificent world, and enabling us to be a part of something so special.
An elegant room neatly arranged with furniture can be a challenging obstacle course in the dark. Turning on the light doesn't alter the room; it remains exactly as before, however now there's nowhere to trip… the pathway is clear.
Turning on the light doesn't alter the room; it remains exactly as before, however now there's nowhere to tripShabbat is the day when we reflect on G‑d being the creator and master of the world. We usher in Shabbat by lighting a candle, bringing a spiritual light of truth and clarity into our homes and consciousness. We generate an atmosphere of peace and harmony, joy and happiness as we sense the true union between the physical and the spiritual. They are not in conflict with each other. Everything is always completely dependent and united with G‑d, and we must unveil that essential connection. This is demonstrated when we "know Him in all our ways" and when we live in a manner that reflects this awareness of G‑d in everything we do. We can let go of our worries; we can appreciate our great fortune and the privilege of shining our light so that this world is lit up and G‑d's presence is experienced by everyone.
There's an inspiring ending to the story of Rochi and her daughter Mushky:
While Rochi and Mushky were walking home, her husband heard a knock at the door of their house. The taxi driver appeared at the doorway beaming with pride as he reported that indeed his car was fine and he had come to bring Rochi's purse as well as a few items they had to leave behind in the cab so as not to transgress the prohibition of carrying something in a public domain on Shabbat. To the taxi driver's surprise, Rochi's husband explained that they couldn't handle money on Shabbat; instead he instructed the driver to take from her purse the payment owed him, completely trusting him to take the right amount.
The driver, visibly moved, remarked that he was so inspired by how committed Rochi and her daughter were to their religionAt this point, the driver, visibly moved, remarked that he was so inspired by how committed Rochi and her daughter were to their religion. He couldn't get over how they were willing to leave behind their money and walk such a great distance because of Shabbat. Seeing that, he decided not to keep their money, as tempting as it was for him – it was equivalent to at least a few months' of his salary – he would instead return it.
Not only did Rochi, her daughter, and the elderly Jewish woman merit lighting their own Shabbat candles, they also lit up their corner of Sumy with the awareness of G‑d, so that those around them could sense G‑d's presence as well and act accordingly.
This essay is dedicated to my dear mother, Rebbetzin Tzivia Miriam Gurary of blessed memory, on the occasion of the fourth anniversary of her passing (12 Iyar 5770-2010).
My mother dedicated her life to bringing the light of Torah and mitzvot to others. She appreciated everyone's unique path and supported their individual growth. Our family always knew we had a cheerleader with complete confidence in our efforts. She was very optimistic, enthusiastic, and creative; she was our shining sun who challenged and motivated us to use our talents to serve G‑d with joy.