We begin the second chapter of Shabbat with some words we are all too familiar with:
Bameh madlikin uvameh ein madlikin – With what may we light and with what may we not light?
The question is a good one: what is it that kindles our fire, and what does not? What is it that brings us enlightenment, and what does not? With what are we brought to life and what causes our flame to peter out, to turn to charcoal and ash?
We ask this question every Friday night as part of our prayers, and I think it is a good question with which to commence Shabbat, with which to begin our day of spiritual rejuvenation.
What was it in our week which enlivened us, which filled our hearts with love and warmth? And which parts of our week turned out to be draining, to be an emotional dead end, to lead us into ever greater anxiety?
What surprised us by turning out to be a lot more rewarding than first appearances suggested, and what disappointed us, whispering promise yet leaving us hollow?
And, looking to the future, where should our hearts and minds be directed, where is the truth in our life, what are the things that connect with our depths, which of our cares have nourishing roots in something sustaining?
The first part of the Mishna is concerned with the wick, with the medium that carries the flame and ensures that the fuel is able to reach it.
What is it that makes for a good wick, what part of our personality connects the flame of activity to the underlying energy which fuels it?
We may find ourselves overwhelmed by anger, by envy, by hatred, by vanity. And up to a point these feelings might energise us, might give us the strength to achieve things, to make a certain sort of progress.
But they do not make for a good wick, for a wick which will be steady, reliable, consistent, enduring. They fall into the category of things ‘wherein the flame flickers on them’ and they do not meet the criteria of something ‘wherein the flame ascends of its own accord, rather than being powered by something external’.
Certain emotions endure, they work away quietly in the background, but we do not always give them their due attention and respect. They perhaps lack the dangerous seduction of others, they are perceived as boring, as homely. The exotic is often attractive, but that doesn’t mean that it leads to a better place.
It is in this sense that we follow false idols, that we are led astray by the harlots of alien cults.
And this leads us to the second part of the Mishna: what is an appropriate fuel, what aspects of life might be the ones which have legs, which will bring us lasting joy and peace?
It will come as no surprise to hear that I sometimes get frustrated and irritated with my children. Even as it’s happening I know that it’s foolish, that my overriding emotion towards them is love and concern, that it’s my tiredness and impatience which are really at fault, that their unwillingness to do exactly as I wish is a healthy reflection of their independent natures. But it happens nonetheless, and it’s only later, perhaps when they’ve gone to sleep, that I’m able to properly re-connect with those positive emotions, to see that the earlier flare up was very much of the surface, that it lacked any depth.
And when I do remember, I resolve to stay connected to that positivity, to prioritise the tender affection which I feel for them and which they need above all else.
And when the disparity between who I am and how I act hits me particularly hard, (I hope one is allowed to posit such a gap, or we’re all pretty much damned), let’s say after a day of particular moodiness on my part, I can be quite amazed by how alien and unwelcome this alternate personality is, by how clearly I can see that I don’t want to be like that. The short livedness of it is a blessing, but there are other fuels which seduce us for a much longer spell.
I can sometimes get excited about a project or idea for a few weeks or months, only to find that my interest soon fades, that it no longer stimulates me. And there is no way in knowing in advance what will or won’t work, what is or is not a good fit for our personality. Life is about constantly figuring ourselves out, about finding the right fit between self and world, about understanding where our energies will flourish most successfully.
Some people might be lucky, and stumble on the right formula early on, for others it can take longer, and the difficulty of the search can be unbelievably painful, the disorientation can be profoundly damaging.
The enduring flame, the one that burns brightly and cleanly, which will not require constant attention and adjustment, this is what our attention is directed towards, this is what we should be seeking. And the wick should connect with the fuel, the personality should connect with the deeper currents in life, this is the path towards a redemptive anchoring.
As the nights get longer, as the darkness sets in earlier, we must perhaps be particularly attentive to the manners in which our light might be burning. Let us ponder the mishna’s question, let us remain open to the surprises it might help us uncover.