I work out regularly with a trainer, who pushes me hard in each of my workouts.
Typically, he creates a “drop set” – where we start a circuit of exercises with fifteen repetitions, or “reps”. Then the next circuit goes down to twelve, then nine, then six.
With each circuit, my muscles get tired, and I feel more fatigue. When I start with fifteen, I’m fresh and full of energy. But as the workout progresses, each set gets harder, even with fewer reps per exercise.
The fact is that I feel grateful for the drop-set. “I’m a little tired. I’m not sure I could do another fifteen – but I can push myself and get to twelve.”
Once, we did our workout in reverse. We started with just a few reps, and then built up to more per set. Even though the workout was the same number of reps, adding more each time took so much more effort – not just in my body but in my spirit.
In every workout, my aching muscles yell at me to stop. And my mind yells back to push myself to finish. It’s hard to persevere when your muscles are burning, as you grow more tired and weary. It takes focus, discipline, and resolve.
Most of all, it takes faith – a belief you can do more than you think, that you are stronger than you know, that you are capable of surmounting challenges that seem insurmountable.
This week, as we celebrate Chanukah, each night we look forward to kindling the lights of our Chanukiah. There is a famous debate between Hillel and Shammai in the Talmud in tractate Shabbat 21a. Shammai’s custom was to begin with eight candles and count down each night. Hillel’s custom was to begin with one candle and add one more each night. Hillel offers a compelling rationale: Ayn Moridin BeKedusha – we do not descend in holiness.
Hillel’s argument is compelling and inspiring, but we all know that’s not how life works. Life is never a straight line.
All the energy in the universe moves in waves. In every facet of life, we experience highs and lows. We all know moments of intense connection and moments of alienation. We all know moments of clarity and moments of confusion. We all know moments of confidence and moments of doubt.
All of us can think of moments when we lived up to our ideals of our highest selves. All of us can remember moments when we failed ourselves and others, when we gave into temptation and engaged in immoral conduct. We can think of moments when we acted with true integrity, and moments when we cheated and were dishonest. We can think of moments when we were generous and selfless, and moments when we were stingy and selfish.
The Hebrew word Chanukah means dedication. It recalls how our ancestors in reconsecrating the holy space of the Temple rededicated those sacred precincts for service to the Holy One.
Dedication requires focus, determination, and commitment. I try to remain dedicated to my fitness regimen. Many mornings I am tired and would rather turn over and stay in bed. But I push myself out the door because my dedication to exercise is a vital commitment to my health and well-being.
But the Hebrew word Chanukah also comes from the same root as Chinuch – education.
We learn so much through the rhythms of life. We learn from moments of peak of experience, and we learn from moments of deepest despair. Our highest highs and our lowest lows – all contribute to the storehouses of our experience, to our growing sense of understanding and wisdom.
I think Hillel was right. Our journeys in life through highs and lows all inspire us to learn and to grow, all help us to better understand our place in the world.
If we never cease in our quest to learn from our experience of life, to never waver in our dedication to grow in wisdom, understanding, and holiness, we will find ourselves continually rising in illumination and awareness, and constantly ascending in holiness and light.
Happy Chanukah – Shabbat Shalom.