A little candle with a big flame
By Rabbi Nochum Mangel, Chabad of Greater Dayton
My granddaughter Kenny just celebrated her third birthday.
Her parents — my daughter Sarah and her husband, Henoch — threw a big party late Friday afternoon, the day of her actual birthday, for this special occasion in addition to the birthday bash she had with her friends at school.
They invited their friends and community to participate in an outdoor celebration, of course, observing proper distancing and masking.
Why the big party? It marks an important milestone in her life — she will now begin to light her own Shabbat candle every Friday night and Jewish holiday.
At her party, all received a party bag filled with the Shabbat essentials like challah, matzah ball soup, and a delicious dessert. The party favors included in the gift bag were two beautiful Shabbat candles and a note asking all women to please light the candles in their own homes that evening.
Then as the sun was about to set, Kenny, my daughter Sarah, and my wife, Devorah — Kenny’s grandmother — stood around the set Shabbat table, ready to usher in the holiness and sanctity of Shabbat by lighting their candles placed at the center of the table.
Little Kenny dressed in the most stunning new Shabbat dress with a crown of flowers on her head. Her face radiated with excitement and joy as she stood on a chair between her mother and grandmother, performing this great mitzvah that connected her with righteous Jewish women throughout history.
Of course, as a grandparent, I was kvelling, what nachas — pride — what an excellent job Sarah and her husband did raising their child.
But beyond those feelings, I was also struck by the power and meaning of the event. I could see how much Kenny was enjoying her moment in the limelight, and I suddenly realized the reality of how this moment so early in life can be life-changing.
The Talmudic sage Abaye, was asked by a rabbi how he remembered a particular obscure law, and he replied — girsa deyankusa — this is something I learned as a small child, and it never leaves.
In Pirke Avot, Ethics of Our Fathers, Elisha ben Avuya compares the effect learning has on us when we are young to its effect when we are older.
When we are young, it is as if we are writing on a clean sheet of paper and the letters are crisp and clear; when we are old, it is more like trying to write on a paper on which writing has been written and erased several times — much harder to read.
Modern neurological science confirms the powerful nature of early memories and impressions. They are embedded and imprinted deep in our brains. They influence our thoughts, our emotions, and our actions years later in a profound way.
Although it might only be in our subconscious mind, it has an ongoing and lasting impact. It is not a process of reason, but on the core outlook of the world and our place in it; it serves as a foundation for the entire structure of our intelligence and our emotional life.
I vividly felt — What a wonderful lifelong gift Kenny was receiving. She was learning that her pure and innocent child’s faith could help people and make the world better, that she was able to do things just like her dear mother (and father) that help make the world a brighter and warmer place.
She saw how she could bring some more light into the world and could sense how, even as a young 3-year-old, even she can drive away much darkness by lighting one small candle.
Our great Chasidic masters, the Rebbes, taught us that the more sophisticated we are, the more we need to learn and rely on the incredible power of simple, innocent faith.
We who are older may have more practical knowledge and experience of how the world works, but along with that understanding comes worry, skepticism, and at times cynicism as well.
We need to connect and reengage our own happy, cheerful little 3-year-old. We must tap into that deepest level of faith within us, to see the world as a place of possibilities and opportunities.
The Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, often quoted the Book of Psalms — Mi pi olelim veyokim yasadta oz — “From the mouths of babies and nursing infants, you have set foundations of strength.”
When the world has lost its reference points and lost its moorings — that is when we must look to the pure and life-changing recognition a little child like Kenny has that they matter and that they can bring light.
In this time of so many troubles, this simple message is crucial. The simple confidence of a 3-year-old that we can bring light to the world and drive away the darkness, no matter how small we may be, is something that all the talking heads of the world cannot supply.
We can and do make a difference. We can shine our own light, and together with the lights of others, we will ultimately make the world a more peaceful, better, warmer, and brighter place with the imminent coming of Moshiach (Messiah).