By Rabbi Menachem Brod
Translated by Yoni Brown
We’re always seeking ways to get ahead in life. If we rent our home, we want to buy our own place. If we own a small apartment, we seek out a more spacious one. We want a newer car and a more prestigious or challenging job.
But when it comes to our spiritual development, we often get stuck in place. Years pass us by, and we haven’t grown. We didn’t upgrade our approach to our prayers, our learning, and our performance of mitzvot. We have the same standards we had years ago. We’re entrenched in our attitudes towards kosher standards and how we treat our friends. If we were once cynical and bitter, we probably still are. If we once enjoyed teasing and tormenting those around us, we’ve probably only gotten better at it. A decade goes by, then another, and some of us haven’t moved an inch.
A Different Step Forward
In truth, it ought to be the opposite. Does it matter if we don’t get ahead in material matters? Many great men lived their entire lives in tiny hovels. That old jalopy will take you wherever you want to go. There’s no need to renovate the kitchen simply because the neighbor did it. “Getting ahead” in material goods doesn’t mean you are getting anywhere in life. It’s the wrong metric for measuring success. That’s why our sages tell us: “Who is rich? He who is satisfied with his lot.”
But we can’t stagnate in place. We must constantly grow in our spiritual development. Here it is unacceptable to be “satisfied with your lot.” It’s our responsibility to strive to rise higher. We find ways to add in positive actions, rising above our entrenched negative habits and fixing what needs fixing. This is the great challenge of life — to constantly grow. Staying stuck in one place will lead to spiritual stagnation and then degradation, culminating in losing our zest for life.
The Chanukah lamps demonstrate the importance of always adding in holiness. Yes, we fulfill the mitzvah perfectly by lighting a single candle on the first night. But on night two, a single candle won’t do. Already we must kindle a second candle to complete the mitzvah. And then a third night comes, requiring yet another flame.
There is a profound message here for each of our lives. “Don’t stay in your comfort zone,” the candles whisper to us. Yes, that was beautiful and perfect, but that was yesterday. A new day calls for a new breakthrough and more progress. As the famous Chasidic adage goes: “If good is good, isn’t better better?”
But the candles also tell us something more. Proper growth doesn’t come through dramatic revolutions or giant leaps. Sure, there are cases when a person has to leap from one extreme to the opposite, but those are exceptions. Under normal circumstances, sustainable growth comes one step at a time. Another small positive resolution, another few minutes of learning, or another small aspect of our behavior improved. First one small candle, and only then can we light another.
The Chanukah candles are a tangible demonstration that many incremental steps add up to a revolution. They begin with just one lonely candle, but soon we are greeted by eight shining lights. Never demean the power of a small isolated act of goodness or a single demonstration of resolve. What matters is that we are looking forward to the future and constantly striving to improve it. With time, we come to see how far those small candles propelled us onward.