By Joanie (Henya) Tansky
How can one or two candles, lit at very specific times, on very specific days, make any difference in my life? Seriously. The truth is, they didn’t for a long time. Rather, I lit them on random Friday nights and for the holidays that I thought counted.
It took me forty years to realize that this mitzvah – lighting Shabbos candles (and the other two mitzvoth given specifically to women family purity and taking challah), gave me a few moments alone with G-d. While this may sound like I drank the Kool-Aid, I did not. When I confronted myself with the question why am I here, why was I born and realized that I have a purpose in the world, well, that’s when things started changing in my life. But I digress.
After lighting my candles, I perform the same motions as my mother, grandmother, daughter and granddaughters do – slowly embracing the small flames toward me three times and closing my eyes to recite the blessing. And then I am alone with my thoughts, knowing that in this moment I can speak directly to Hashem and ask for whatever I want or need or hope for or dream about.
Do I Have to Eat the Whole Enchilada at Once?
What brought me from being a skeptic to someone who believes there is a G-d in the world and He cares what I do?
Up until I was forty years old I did not follow a life of Torah and mitzvoth. I was a traditional Jew. Friday nights we would have the requisite challah, my husband would make Kiddush and after the meal my children (a daughter and two sons) would go out. Most years I fasted on Yom Kippur but not always. Passover was hard so I tried my best.
Through circumstances called Divine Providence, or in other words nothing happens by accident, I slowly began to become observant. I delved into the beauty that Judaism has to offer. I realized that for generations before me Jewish women have been lighting candles, often in dangerous and life-threatening situations. I woke up to the fact that I was born in a time of peace, that I am able to practice Judaism openly and with pride, when and where I so choose. It certainly was not always this way.
Which brings us back to the candles.
The History of the Candles
It is the woman who ushers in every Shabbos and all the holidays by lighting candles. I do not want to sound like a feminist, which I am not. This is a fact. If there are no women in the house, it is incumbent upon a man to light the candles.
Once the candles are lit, in their absolute silence they bring an air of peace and dignity to the home. Without uttering a sound these flames signify that the upcoming twenty-four hours will be different than the rest of the week.
At this point you may be saying to yourself, I never did this. It feels strange to me. How can I just start lighting candles? Friday night is, well, Friday night. Another night of the week. For the rest of the world this is true. For the Jewish people, Friday night is very special and has been since in the Torah portion of Yitro, when G-d gave us the Ten Commandments and told us to remember (zachor) Shabbat.
And in case we didn’t get it the first time, in Parshat Va’etchanan Moshe repeated the commandment and told us to safeguard (shamor) Shabbat. Our sages tell us that at the time the Torah was given, G‑d uttered the words shamor and zachor – remember and safeguard - simultaneously, to teach us that both are equal parts of the Shabbat commandment. To commemorate this, the sages instructed us to kindle lights.
How to Start
One of the first things I did on my journey was begin lighting Shabbat candles. Honestly because it was the easiest thing to do - it was not deeply thought-out. Then I learned that when one does a mitzvah it stands on its own. Meaning what you do before or after does not affect the mitzvah you did. So if you light your candles at the appropriate time but don’t exactly keep Shabbos (for nowJ), the mitzvah stands.
Every Jewish soul is analogous to a candle, as it says in the verse, "The soul of man is G‑d's candle". (Proverbs 20:27). The soft golden light of the flames brings one closer to our essence. Our bodies house our souls which yearn to come closer to the Divine. At the same time, in one of the greatest paradoxes, our bodies resist this which is the way G-d made it and why it feels strange to light candles if you’ve never done it before.
What amazed me was that it didn’t take long for a ‘new normal’ to take root. While my family showed some resistance they also grasped, without me saying a word, that this is who we really are. Believers of believers.
If you have read this far, you have most likely made the decision to dip your toe into the waters of Torah. Know this: Only good will come from your resolution. In fact, you will be amazed how your family and friends will not only admire your courage, but respect your choice, even if you have never lit a Shabbos candle in your life.
Every moment has two faces: It is a moment defined by the past from which it extends and by the future to which it leads. And it is a moment for itself, with its own meaning, purpose and life. Live for the moment.
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