On the eight days of Chanukah we kindle an eight-candle menorah. But we don’t light all eight every night. On the first night we kindle one candle, on the second two, and so on until the eighth night–when all eight candles shine forth.
This clearly displays a very basic theme in Judaism: there must be consistent progress. I may have lit one candle yesterday, illuminating my life and my environment, but that’s not good enough for today; I’ve got to advance “from strength to strength,” making my life more meaningful. If G-d gives me a day of life, it’s got to be productive, substantive–we’ve got to progress beyond our own status-quo, our own norms. Chanukah teaches us not to be satisfied with what was good yesterday.
In the Code of Jewish Law, the laws of Tereifos address the specific physical abnormalities that would render a properly slaughtered (kosher) animal un-kosher. A kosher animal must be a healthy animal, and a mortal wound or life-threatening blemish will render it unfit for consumption. In chapter 58, paragraph 7, of those laws, the code paints the following scenario: You’re standing at the bank of a river and a kosher species of bird flies overhead. Suddenly, the bird does a nosedive into the water–striking the water with considerable force. Now it’s paddling slowly along the water’s surface. You’re hungry, and you’d like to reel it in, slaughter it and have it for lunch. Should you assume that it sustained massive internal trauma and damage upon impact? Or is there a reasonable hope that it’s alive and well, that if you slaughter it and inspect it, you’ll find its organs intact?
The Code gives the following litmus test: If it’s swimming upstream, against the current, then you can be confident that it’s okay. If it’s floating with the stream, then try to determine whether the bird is floating more quickly than the current, or together with the current. If it’s swimming more quickly than the current, you can be reasonably certain that it’s still healthy; if it’s just floating at the same pace as the current, don’t bother–it’s dying. In Judaism, living means consistent self-betterment. It means being perpetually pro-active.
I may have had an inadequate upbringing; I may have certain character flaws–that’s a natural part of the human condition. But we shouldn’t just resign ourselves to negative character traits or behavior. We have to swim upstream when necessary, to battle our own respective natures. I may see no reason to swim upstream. Maybe I’m basically satisfied with my character and with that of my community. Judaism tells me not to rest on my laurels, just following the positive stream of my life or the virtuous norms of my society. I’ve got to move more swiftly than the norm, more quickly than the stream of life’s current. Even if things are good, there’s always room for improvement.
If I satiate my desire for productivity with what I’ve already accomplished, I’ve basically ceased to live. The Jewish attitude to life is: If G-d gave you another day, there’s obviously more to do. Never be satisfied with what you did yesterday. We can’t be satisfied until we’ve perfected ourselves and our surroundings to an extent that we live in a tranquil, peaceful, perfected world–a world of Moshiach.
By Rabbi Mendy Herson.