Just Show Up!

Sometimes, as a friend says, we deserve a standing ovation for just showing up. The truth is, even those of us who seem most passionate about our Jewish lives are not always “fired up” for every mitzvah or every religious occasion. Sometimes, the best we can do is just show up. Fortunately, our tradition recognizes this ebb and flow of human motivation.

In the midst of a discussion about Chanukah, the rabbis in the Talmud (Bavli 22b) ask an essential question about the mitzvah of the Chanukah candles. What exactly is the mitzvah of Chanukah? “Hadlakah osah mitzvah?” Is the mitzvah of Chanukah to actually light the candles, or “hanacha osah mitzvah,” is placing the chanukiah sufficient to fulfill the mitzvah?

The Talmud—and ultimately, Jewish law—chooses hadlakah (lighting) as the mitzvah. In order to fulfill the mitzvah of Chanukah, one must actually light the candles, as the blessing we say teaches us: “lehadlik ner shel Chanukah.”

The beauty of Talmudic discussions, of course, is that even the defeated position takes on significance and the question itself—about the essential mitzvah of Chanukah—becomes the centerpiece of a Chassidic teaching. For Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, the eighteenth-century Kedushat Levi, both hadlakah (lighting the candles) as well as hanacha (placing the chanukiyah) have their spiritual importance. The focus on lighting the candles reminds us that religious actions must be done with hitlahavut, enthusiasm, a kind of fiery passion and excitement, but placing the chanukiyah (hanacha) also has its role in religious life.

Sometimes, suggests the Kedushat Levi, all we can manage is simply to place the chanukiah. Not every moment is fiery! Hopefully, we have many moments when we are kindled with excitement for Jewish life, when we have a strong desire to do the mitzvot with passion. However, we also have times when we may feel a sense that the internal flame is not lit, when we may not be able to find the internal combustion that is required for the enthusiasm, the hitlahavut, of the lit candles. By recognizing the importance of hanacha, the Kedushat Levi acknowledges that in these moments, we can still do a religious act. Yes, the mitzvah is the lighting of the candles, but placing the menorah in the window counts, too; showing up is halfway there.

The Chassidic text recognizes the reality of religious life. No matter how we may feel, we can access the meaning and power of Chanukah, even outside of the mitzvah itself. In the hanacha, in setting up our chanukiyah, we express faith in the potential for the candles to awaken the light within us. Our passion will come again; it will be rekindled. May the lights of Chanukah (and this much-needed and well-deserved vacation!) help to fire up that inner flame for each of us.

Chanukah Sameach!