One of the greatest joys and focal points of my adolescence was my involvement in Yeshiva League sports. Though I was primarily a basketball and softball player in high school, many of my close friends also played on various teams including volleyball and soccer, and we shared the inimitable glory and thrill of competition, collaboration, and commitment to something beyond ourselves. There are many lessons to be learned from playing team sports, and there is even a special branch of psychology dedicated to studying and extricating these lessons.
One such important idea is derived from a chant I heard repeated time and again at my high school’s soccer games, a battle cry that carried my friends’ team and teammates through countless games and seasons. Prior to each game, and during some of the most nail-biting, tense moments of play, a growing rumble could be heard across the gym; “N-L-U,” we cheered, “N-L-U!” These letters stand for “never let up,” a reminder to the players – and their fans – to never give up, to never stop putting 100% of their energy, determination, and perseverance into the game. Long after I graduated high school, these letters and their powerful message remained with me as a mantra through countless difficult moments along my personal and professional journey.
As you may have noticed, I took a hiatus from Thought for Thought over the last few months in order to make time for certain important personal and professional matters. In that time, however, I started to notice a dip in my mood and sense of overall well-being. Irrespective of various personal and work-related stressors, I realized that I was suffering from a soul-deep inertia, my body and soul malnourished from the lack of spiritual connection and rejuvenation usually gleaned from my weekly Torah psychology deep dive. A poignant story comes to mind about R’ Yisroel Salanter, quoted in the book “A Code of Jewish Ethics” by Joseph Telushkin. A student once told R’ Salanter that he only had fifteen minutes of time a day to devote to learning and asked whether he should use this time to study Talmud or Mussar. R’ Yisrael Salanter chided him that if he studied Mussar, he would realize that something was amiss in his life if he only had fifteen minutes to study Torah, and that he would likely find he had even more time to learn. The message to that student – and to me – was clear.
It is unsurprising, therefore, that in sitting down to consider the psychological messages of this week’s Parsha I discovered yet again the timeless and never coincidental truth in the personally relevant messages of our Torah. In this week’s Parsha, we learn about Aharon’s Mitzvah to light the Menorah, as instructed to him by God through Moshe. The pasuk (8:2-3) describes Hashem’s commandment to Aharon to light the Menorah’s seven lamps each day, and notes “va’yaas kein Aharon… ka’asher tzivah Hashem es Moshe,” that Aharon lit the Menorah as commanded by Hashem through Moshe. Rashi (8:2), quoting the Sifri, explains that the pasuk is redundant, noting that Aharon did exactly as Hashem commanded, in order to praise Aharon “shelo shina,” that he did not deviate from God’s instructions.
Exactly one year ago, R’ Chaim Marcus gave a Parsha shiur over Zoom that I made a note to listen to again and to write down; the reminder has remained on my phone for an entire year. This week I finally re-listened to that shiur and was both entirely awed and unsurprised at the nature of the message I had reminded myself to internalize one year ago. R’ Marcus explained according to the Sfas Emes that Rashi’s comment regarding Aharon’s behavior actually only adds to the confusion. Why would we think that Aharon would ever deviate from what Hashem had commanded him to do? Why do we need to praise Aharon for strictly adhering to God’s word – is this not just typical behavior for the High Priest??
The Sfas Emes explains that the praise Rashi speaks of is praise for Aharon that he did not deviate in his excitement in lighting the Menorah each day, day-in, day-out; just as Aharon was excited and enthused to light the Menorah for the first time, so too he continued to do so with enthusiasm and excitement all the days thereafter, and this sustained excitement for the Mitzvah of lighting the Menorah is truly praiseworthy.
R’ Marcus quotes the Kedushas Levi’s writings on Chanukah regarding the Bracha “asher kidshanu bi’mitzvosav vi’tzivanu lihadlik ner shel Chanukah.” The Kedushas Levi (R’ Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev) explains these words homiletically, noting that Hashem commands us “l’hadlik,” to light up - He asks us to ignite our souls like the Menorah, to tend to those tenuous flames with great care to prevent them from dwindling or G-d forbid burning out entirely.
Sustaining enthusiasm for something we do regularly is extremely difficult and in many ways unnatural. It is the natural way of human beings to regress to the mean, so to speak, for our excitement and energy to wax and wane, for that which is initially shiny and new to eventually lose its glamor and glitter and become mundane and rote. Performing a spiritual task with vim and vigor for days on end is therefore extremely admirable and commendable, and thus Aharon deserves this extra praise for doing exactly that.
I recently went away with a few friends for a long weekend and, as is our tradition, we made a roaring campfire one night complete with requisite Kumzits songs and s’mores making, of course. Having done similar trips with similar fires many times over the last year or so, we were particularly impressed with this fire, as it was better and more self-sustaining than any we had made thus far. My friend Ariel Zucker, resident Girl Scout and fire-building expert, explained simply and quite profoundly that this fire was so much better because she had continued to fan it and feed it so that it would keep going on its own.
This is one crucial lesson of the Menorah; we cannot let up in our spiritual nourishment and growth, even for a moment. Furthermore, we cannot let up in igniting and sustaining that spark inside us that glows warm from the excitement and beauty of Torah learning and observance, of involvement in our Jewish life.
R’ Marcus added one more layer to this idea, however, that is in many ways the other side of the dialectic of maintaining excitement in Judaism and spiritual growth. While one explanation of Rashi’s comment on “va’yaas kein Aharon” is that the praise is in Aharon’s continued enthusiasm in lighting the Menorah each day, this is not the simplest explanation. The pshat of this pasuk and Rashi is actually the opposite: “Va’Yaas Kein Aharon,” Aharon did as God commanded, and this is praiseworthy, “shelo shina,” because he did not deviate; rather, he did the same thing, day-in, day-out, despite the fact that this might have become mundane or boring, despite the fact that he might not have been as excited, or even in the mood, to perform this act every day – nevertheless, he did it anyway.
One of the most crucial psychological skills one can learn and utilize in life is the art of recognizing mood-dependent behaviors and exercising great care and wisdom in choosing to or not to engage in them. We human beings often complain about “not being in the mood” to do or not do some thing or another. In many ways, this is an Achilles’ heel to growth and progress, for if we were to always only wait to be “in the mood” to do certain things, they’d surely never get done! The lesson here, on the other side of this dialectic, is that Aharon was praiseworthy because he did not deviate from his task, and did not let up, even if he was not “in the mood,” so to speak. Perhaps Aharon maintained his enthusiasm for the Mitzvah of lighting the Menorah and was able to access a level of hischadshus, continued renewal, that often feels beyond our reach. And, at the same time, perhaps Aharon was not always as enthusiastic about this aspect of the Avodah; nevertheless, he continued to do so each day, never deviating even one iota from the manner in which God had commanded him to perform it.
As I have personally experienced over the last few months, we all have what Rav Wolbe called “yimei Ahava” and “yimei Sinah,” days of love and days of alienation in our Avodas Hashem. The crucial lesson of this week’s Parsha is clear: whether in our excitement and enthusiasm, or simply in our behavior, we must never let up.
This week, consider an area of your spiritual life that needs rejuvenation or resuscitation. Note whether your enthusiasm or excitement is waning and attempt to revive it if you can; reignite the spark and fan the flames, reaching out for help and Chizuk if you need it. And, even if you cannot muster that enthusiasm, or get yourself “in the mood” you so want to be in to engage in those spiritual pursuits, lean into the wisdom of the Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 380) and modern-day behavior therapy, recognizing that “acharei hapeulos nimshachim halevavos,” our emotions often change based upon our actions. Whatever state you find yourself in to these ends, I cheer for you from the sidelines: Never. Let. Up.