Increase or Reduce
There are two ways to light Chanukah candles. One is to start with the smallest amount of light and increase each day, the second is to start with the greatest amount of light and reduce the light each day. In fact, this was an argument between the schools of Hillel and Shamai. Hillel said to light one candle the first night and build up to eight. Shamai said to light eight candles the first night and work down to one.
The Talmud gives us the legalistic arguments behind their respective opinions. Shamai said we should celebrate the days that are left, Hillel said we should celebrate the days that have passed. On the second night, the cruise of oil would burn for only seven more nights so Shamai would have you light seven candles. But it had started to burn into its second night, so Hillel would have you light two candles.
When you think about it you will see that Hillel tells us to grow the light. The light should increase as the miracle unfolds. Shamai tells us to shrink the light. Reduce the light as the miracle winds down.
Two Paths Toward Change
This debate applies to every area of growth in life. When you want to change a bad habit or a harmful addiction, when you want to break out of a bad rut or get out of a harmful relationship, there are always two tasks. One is to shrink the negative, the other is to grow the positive.
Suppose you need to break out of the terrible habit of teasing. You are disgusted by your propensity for caustic, sarcastic remarks; it slips off your tongue without notice. You feel terrible each time you tease, and you know you need to stop. You don’t mean to be crude, but you almost can’t help yourself. You need be more conscientious. You need to think before you speak. But that feels like an overwhelming and nearly impossible task. How do you do it? There are two approaches, Shamai and Hillel.
Shamai says stop cold turkey. Be your own cruelest dictator and give yourself no quarter. It will be excruciating at first; it will take everything you have and leave you depleted by the end of the day. But remember this, the beginnings are always hardest. If you stay with it, tomorrow will be a little easier. The first day will require your every waking thought. But the second day won’t require as much effort. You will have broken through and it will come a little easier.
Each day, your new pattern will become a little more comfortable; a little more familiar. With time, your new custom will become habit. Shamai would have you think of tomorrow, when you encounter the pains of today. Yes, today is difficult, but tomorrow, won’t be as hard. And the next day will be even easier, and it will get easier after that.
On the first night, Shamai tells you to light eight candles. When the dark settles in, Shamai advises you to use everything you’ve got. Hold nothing back; you will need every ounce of reserve to battle this darkness. Whether the darkness is in the night or in your soul, it will require much light to drive it away. But once you get used to the light, once you get into the groove of pushing darkness away, it becomes easier. You need less energy to continue the fight than to start the fight.
Therefore, Shamai tells us to light only seven candles the next night. Keep reducing candles until such time that the light in your soul will be on automatic and won’t even need to be rekindled as night falls.
Hillel takes a different view. Hillel tells you to go easy on yourself and not worry too much if you slipped up the first day despite your greatest effort. You can’t expect to be perfect from the get go. On the first night, you light only one candle. That is not a lot of light, but don’t fret, it is more light than you had yesterday. So, if despite your best efforts, a caustic comment or a teasing remark slipped out, don’t despair. This is just the beginning and tomorrow will be much better. Tomorrow you will light two lights, then three and four until you reach eight.
Tomorrow Will Be Much Better
Shamai and Hillel agree that you need to look forward. Shamai tells you to think that tomorrow will be easier. Hillel tells you to think that tomorrow will be better. The resistance will shrink each day as you go along, hence the number of candles should be reduced according to Shamai. But the light, the amount of success, will increase each day, thus the number of candles should be increased according to Hillel
The Critical Start
Shamai and Hillel disagree on how much pressure you should put on yourself that first day. Shamai says, go all the way; give yourself no quarter. It will be hard, but don’t let that stop you. Hillel says, start with a little today and improve each day as you go along.
Shamai was an exacting teacher; he only accepted pupils of the highest caliber. Hillel was a populist, who took in any student that applied. Thus, Shamai developed an exacting approach; a high standard that could be demanded from his student. Hillel developed a more welcoming approach; one that anyone can adopt.
Hillel’s approach is embedded in the way we light our Chanukah candles today. We keep growing, step by step, candle by candle, light by light and mitzvah by mitzvah. Before we know it, we will have built a huge edifice of mitzvah, a conglomerate comprised of many little pieces. Many individual lights.
When Moshiach comes, things will change. We will all be capable of living up to Shamai’s standards. This is why Jewish tradition teaches that when Moshiach comes, we will switch over to Shamai’s approach and light eight candles the first night and reduce from there. Until that time, we will be proud and effective Hillels. Lighting up the world, candle by candle, little flame, by little flame.