Flickering Flames

By Rabbi Y.Y. Rubinstein

White, yellow, red, blue… a flame flickers and leaps up, as though trying to break free from the wick and oil that fuel its dance.

There is something about a flame that mesmerizes and enchants. We feel drawn to it, sometimes gazing at it, transfixed, for long minutes. A flame seems to reach inside us, touching something deep within our souls.

In Taanis 22a, the Ben Ish Chai quotes the Kabbalah that Hashem created the universe from the four basic elements: water, fire, earth and air.

Then he points out that Hashem’s name consists of four letters. Each of those letters hints at and parallels one of those four fundamental elements. Two of them are the letter hei.

One hei symbolizes “Ha’aretz.” This world, where there is gravity, is a place that often pulls us down, in more ways than one. Things happen here that we simply don’t comprehend or understand. The word for “world,” after all, is olam, which comes from the root that means hide or hidden. Here in Olam Hazeh we often “don’t get it.” Why do good things happen to bad people? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do they happen to me?

The other hei symbolizes “Eish” and also simchah. Candles flicker and shine and accompany us at all our simchos. The flames dance upward and reach towards Shamayim, so in truth that hei stands for Olam Haba and its perspective, which, writes the Ben Ish Chai, is understanding.

In fact, there is no greater simchah than when all pieces fall into place. Two people from different ends of the world meet, and a chuppah follows. Simchah! A complicated business deal requiring many different strands to come together at the right time works out. Simchah!

Seeing our world from Shamayim’s viewpoint, it makes perfect sense. All the inexplicable things are crystal clear and evoke an “Ah! Now I see!” moment. Simchah!

The darkness that spread over the Jewish people from the Yevanim and Misyavnim (Hellenists) tried to rip the very soul from Klal Yisrael. You can almost hear the Yidden of that time asking, “Why are good things happening to those bad people, the Misyavnim? Why are such bad things happening to loyal Torah Jews?”

Al Hanissim explains what happened next. Just when their world had pulled them down, with so much occurring that they didn’t comprehend or understand…

In the days of Mattisyahu Kohen Gadol… You, in Your infinite mercy, stood up for them at the time of their pain. You fought their fight… handed the mighty into the hands of the weak. You gave the many into the hands of the few and the impure into the hands of the pure… Then Your sons entered Your Temple… restored Your sanctuary and sanctified Your Holy place and lit the lights in the courtyard of Your Holy Temple.

Those lights remained lit for another 200 years, only to go out again in a terrible new darkness that would last for nearly 2,000 years (and counting).

It is hard to imagine the pain that descended on the Jewish people when the first Temple was destroyed and its Menorah was extinguished. It is even harder to imagine their anguish when the lights vanished and the Menorah was lost a second time. The Romans boasted that they had carried it home to Italy. They erected an arch dedicated to Titus Harasha depicting their triumph and our tragedy. Without our Beis Hamikdash and our Menorah, our world has remained dark. In the middle of the twentieth century, it grew darker than ever before.

The Ramban writes at the beginning of Parashas Behaalos’cha: Why is the parashah of the Menorah next to the parashah of the gifts of the Nesi’im for the Chanukas HaMishkan?

Aharon was distressed because neither he nor his shevet was invited to take part in this mitzvah. Hashem assured him, “Your part will be greater than theirs, because you will light the Menorah!”

This refers not to the Menorah in the Beis Hamikdash but to the menorah of Chanukah. Aharon was told there would be an eight-branched menorah to light that would be given to the Jewish people through his sons the Kohanim… The seven-branched Menorah would be lit only in a Beis Hamikdash… but the Chanukah menorah with its eight lights would burn even when there was no Temple.

The seven-branched Menorah’s kedushah was tied to a place and time. The Chanukah menorah, with its eight branches, supersedes both place and time. Though the Menorah in the Beis Hamikdash would one day be taken from us, there would always be neiros Chanukah. Eight dancing flames annually would remind us that in Shamayim, all the inexplicable things are crystal clear and make perfect sense.

To understand the difference between the two menoros, we need to explore a profound idea that Rav Dessler discusses in several places:

The world was created for human beings, and particularly for Klal Yisrael. We were given freedom to choose to be avadim of Hashem or, as so many did under the influence of Greece, to abandon our path and embrace another false one.

In order to have choice, there has to be time. In Michtav MeEliyahu (vol. 4, pages 110-111), Rav Dessler explains why:

If both the past and the future were revealed and clear to a person, he would have no freedom of choice and sin would be an impossibility. It is only when the past (and its consequences) has faded, becoming a distant memory, and the future is hidden and dark, that a person can decide to abandon Hashem’s path.

That does not occur before we are born into this world. There we see everything and all the consequences of all the choices ever made… From one end of the world … from its beginning … to its end. In this world of bechirah, all of that is, of course, hidden and concealed. … The reality we do not see is that past and future in fact co-exist simultaneously with the present!

Rav Dessler’s words mean that ultimately there is no such thing as time. The world created over seven “days” was a creation where there is an appearance and perception of time, to allow for bechirah. He continues:

It is only as we enter this physical world that the illusion and perception of time begins… The perception of time and place is the necessary framework to allow choice to occur.

Through Heaven’s eyes, then, there is no time, even if for you and me it feels as real as can be.

Sometimes we break free of the world that was created in seven days and where time rules. Neviim did, and glanced beyond the present. When they did, they left the world of “seven” behind.

The seven branches of the Menorah in the Beis Hamikdash hint that it was tied to both a place and a time, and consequently it could be lost. The eight branches of the Chanukah menorah hint at a reality above time and place that can never be lost. The eight flames therefore leap and dance heavenward and invite us to step beyond a world of seven, where we are trapped in the present and its pain, and to see things from Heaven’s perspective, where things are crystal clear and all the pieces fit.

There are other flickering flames that carry a similar message: Shabbos lights.

In Parashas Vayakhel, the Jewish people are invited to bring gifts of gold, silver, copper, etc. for the Mishkan. Before they do, the passuk warns: Six days you will work but on the seventh, it will be holy to you, a Shabbos of rest.

Rashi explains that we might have thought the holiness of the Mishkan supersedes the holiness of Shabbos, but the Torah declares here that it does not.

The Oznayim LaTorah takes this idea further: Shabbos and the Beis Hamikdash share a common purpose — to bring us close to Hashem. The Beis Hamikdash is a place of holiness, kedushah b’makom. You can achieve that closeness to Hashem by going there 365 days a year. Shabbos is a time of holiness, kedushah bi’zman. You can connect to Hashem through it only 52 days a year.

Therefore, one would think that the Beis Hamikdash would have superiority, yet the Torah says otherwise. The places of kedushah, the Mishkan and its successors, the two Batei Mikdash, stood for only a limited time. Shabbos, kedushah bi’zman, lasts forever and therefore takes precedence. Its flickering lights sparkle and dance in every place and time that Yidden find themselves, during this too-long and dark Galus.

Why is this so? Rav Dessler points to the words in Bereishis: And Hashem rested on the seventh day from all the work that He had done.

He asks: What does “work” mean with reference to Hashem? He does no work. He thinks a thing and it exists! What He created through the six days of creation is a world where time and place appear to exist and where He is hidden. He “stops” [rests from] hiding on the Shabbos, and that is when one can find Hashem easiest.

The heilige Shabbos, therefore, offers and allows us a glimpse into a world beyond time.

Shabbos contains the most sublime moments in a world made of seven, a world of time.

Chanukah, with its eight branches, can show us where time — past, present and future — disappears and we are free to see from Heaven’s perspective without time blurring our vision.

The message of the Chanukah lights illuminates even the darkest moments. They hint to us that we can look beyond the tyranny of time trapping us in the present to where everything makes perfect sense, where inexplicable things are crystal clear and evoke an “Ah! Now I see!” moment.

About ten years ago, my wife and I spent a few days in Arosa, Switzerland, with friends of ours. The small kosher hotel was full, and as my friend and I sat singing zemiros on Friday night, an elderly woman who was there with her family turned her chair to better listen. When we sang again, she moved the chair right up to our table, and after we finished, we began to shmooze. Her name, we learned, was Margot Dzialoszynski. Of course, after only a short while, I was able to discover a family connection.

Her journey as a young girl took her from her hometown to several concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. The stories she told were among the darkest I have ever heard and her survival was nothing short of the title she gave her memoir, The Living Miracle. After the war, she recuperated from tuberculosis in Switzerland and then headed off to Gateshead to the seminary set up by Rav Dessler. Eventually she married a famous askan of Agudas Yisroel and settled in Switzerland.

Rebbetzin Dzialoszynski smiled as she told me that because of her terrible suffering in the camps, together with the tuberculosis, doctors had told her she would never be able to have any children. She went on to have 13!

“That,” Margot told me, “was my answer to Hitler, yemach shemo.”

There is one more flame to add to our list. A Jewish neshamah is compared to a flame.

As mentioned, before it comes into This World, it can see things through the lens of past, present and future; it sees time as one. Once here, that clarity is removed and time and place appear real in order to give the neshamah bechirah.

Perhaps that is why we are so enthralled by flames. A flame climbs up toward Heaven where there is understanding of how all the pieces of the puzzle, with all the world’s seeming unfairness, fit perfectly into place. It also reminds us of a time before we came into Olam Hazeh where we could see and understand the entire picture, “misof ha’olam ad sofo,” from the beginning of time to the end, after Moshiach comes.

One of the pictures on the cover of Margot Dzialoszynski’s book is of a group of girls in Gateshead just after the war, gathered around a Chanukah menorah and gazing at the flickering flames. Like those girls, when we, the descendants of the Jews who never gave in to the Greeks and the darkness they brought, look into those Chanukah lights, we step outside life’s dark moments… we step outside of time.

Our neshamos understand the message of those flames. They can see with a complete and total certainty that there is another Beis Hamikdash that is going to be built — in fact, it already has been. Those eights lights tell us that it’s not in the future… there is no future. It’s already here, just waiting to be revealed. n