Monday, December 22, 2014

My Zaidy, Shimon Woolf z"l and Chanukah...

A few days ago it was the first yartzheit (anniversary) of my grandfather, Shimon Woolf z"l (may he rest in eternal peace).  He died last year on the third night of Chanukah, and for our family, a light that had burned for more than ninety years had been extinguished forever.  This past Shabbat, my family shared a meal with good friends and our host gave a small Dvar Torah while we sat at the table, unable to move from all the amazing food.  He spoke about the machloket - the disagreement - between Hillel and Shamai in regards to lighting the menorah on Chanukah.  Shamai argued that we begin the holiday by lighting all eight candles on the first night and gradually decrease every night until we light one last candle on the last night of the holiday.  Hillel argued that we start off the holiday by lighting just one and then increase every night until we are lighting all eight candles on the last night of the holiday.  Our sages have decided that while Shamai's method had merit in many ways, we were - for generations to come - going to do things Hillel's way.  And so we do.  But the reason our host gave was a beautiful one.

Our world, especially now, is a dark one.  There are unspeakable events happening all over the world that seem to be gaining a scary momentum and it doesn't seem like things are going to get better just yet.  As Jews, we are commanded to be a light unto the nations.  The events over this past summer tested us in ways no one should ever be tested, and yet, we came through with flying colors.  We sought prayer, gave comfort and rose beyond the anger that fuels revenge and hatred and chose to love instead.  The outpouring of pure giving that went on in this country was mind-boggling, inspirational and endless.  And so we - as a nation - actively chose to keep that commandment and we shone.  

Our Shabbat host explained that when you take a pitch black room and suddenly fill it with lots of light, it's bright and beautiful.  You've filled the darkness with lots of light and that's a good thing.  But the act of lighting one less candle each night, is a depressing one.  And a passive one.  Instead of keeping the light, you're actually extinguishing it slowly until there's but one measly flickering flame left behind.  The amazing quality about light is that even a little bit of it can light up even the darkest of rooms.  It fills each and every corner with just enough light for you to see and find your way.  And in doing so, it brings with that small flickering flame the concept of hope.  Increasing the light slowly until the room is completely lit up, is the antithesis of depressing.  It's an act of positivity and hopefulness, of seeing the glass half full instead of half empty.  It's an attitude, it's the way we should all see life, and ultimately, I believe it is the key to our survival.  Bringing the light into the darkness is one thing, but increasing it is a whole different concept altogether.

And I'm not just speaking physically, but metaphorically as well.

My grandfather carried a light inside of him wherever he went.  Yes, he was sometimes incredibly focused, single minded and filled with more stubborn determination than anyone in their 90's should be, but he had that light.  It shone from his face when he handed out candy every Shabbat to the kids in his shul in exchange for some words about the parsha.  It shone from him whenever he was busy with the mitzvah of Hachnasat Orchim, which he was busy with all the time.  Nothing made him happier than hosting people.  He'd go out of his way to buy just the right cakes and offer drinks and a comfortable seat and he would engage you from the minute you walked in until the minute you left.  He gave tzedakah with a smile and a willing hand.  The crinkles in the corners of his eyes never reflected more light than when he was with my grandmother.  His love for her was palpable.  He came to Israel to visit almost every Passover for the last four or five years of his life.  We took him to Leket one afternoon during Chol Hamoed and he insisted on getting down in the dirt to help his great grandchildren pick beets for the needy.  He was dressed impeccably, dapper and elegant in his perfectly ironed slacks and button down shirt and tweed cap, but he got down on his knees and he picked those beets.  And you could see the light that shone from him.

When he died, I thought that that light was forever gone.  After all, it's the neshama, the soul and the true essence of a person that makes a person truly alive.  Without the soul sparking within, there is no life.  

But I think I was looking at this the wrong way.  

I think that if we all take those little sparks of light that we've learned from him - his genuine crinkly smile, his easy laughter, his love for Torah, his true desire to help people and his welcoming nature - we can keep the light that was him alive.  And we can increase our own inner light.  We can keep the spirit and deeper meaning of Chanuka, of bringing more and more light into this world alive.  And instead of slowly removing and extinguishing the light, we can make a conscious decision to strengthen the light, and keep that flame steady and constant, not just during Chanukah, but during each and every day of our lives.

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