Chanukah has wound down, and we have hopefully absorbed more than the sufganiyot (and latkes). Historically, Chanukah is chronologically the “last” yom tov, and thus it stands to reason that its message would be one which can carry us through to the geulah. As we learned last week, the Bach explains that the nub of Chanukah is that the Jews turned around a hisrashlus (a laxity) in their avodas Hashem, and through their mesirus nefesh corrected that very flaw. And we also have seen that, given the precarious position of Klal Yisroel vis-à-vis the nations of the world, who are intent upon harming us, it makes sense that even a slight flaw might have the effect of jeopardizing our well-being.

This is reflected in our personal lives as well.

Chazal teach us that each person is constantly in the precarious position of being subject to the enticements of his yetzer hara, and of the physically alluring world. And the reality is that a person is constantly beset by nisyonos (as we have seen in the last series of articles) and is thus regularly subject to decisions in his or her spiritual career. And similarly, our physical lives and well-being are in a constant state of insecurity. Just listen to the news (water; fire; constant threats of destruction) or observe what is going on among your friends and neighbors.

We cannot help but realize that we need Hashem’s mercy just to get through the day — and safely. But that is precisely the cause of our problem. An imperfection in our avodah — and we will explain shortly, im yirtzeh Hashem, the parameters of what constitutes an imperfection — will almost automatically result in leaving ourselves vulnerable to the vicissitudes and uncertainties of life. Our health, our lives, our parnassah are always hanging in the balance — each and every one of us is a “sheep amongst seventy wolves.” Do we realize that an imperfection in our avodah would result is a less-than-perfect existence (to say the least)? Money can be lost, health can be affected, children can be problematic, even turn astray. We feel deserving of Hashem’s protection against troubles and misfortunes… but are we? Don’t we fall short? And if we fall short — aren’t we risking what Yaakov Avinu faced when struggling with the angel, and losing control for a moment (see Seforno cited last week)? Aren’t we walking a tightrope, and any lessening of our efforts might just result in…

Does all this sound depressing, pessimistic, morbid, discouraging, and disheartening? Honestly, it probably does. So why and how is our avodah supposed to be b’simchah, with joy, optimism, cheer, inspiration, and exhiliration?

Because Hashem knows us better than we know ourselves. After all, He manufactured us, and gave us the capabilities and potential that we have. And just as He demands of us to do what we are capable of, He does not expect — or even ask — us to do what we are not capable of doing. A primary rule of life is, “Ein Hakadosh Baruch Hu bah biterunia im b’riyosav— Hashem does not come with grievances against mankind (Masechess Avodah Zara, 3A). This means simply that Hashem does NOT expect or oblige us to perform what we cannot do — and the inability might be due to any number of factors. And one man’s capability, and resultant culpability, is totally different than another’s. For example, one person’s level and focus on his or her davening might result in great reward and the hoped-for result, and another person might have to answer for that same level of intentness, as to why it was so weak (for him or her).

Thus we walk the tightrope of life — and here are the rules:

Rule One: Do your best; but you only have to do your best — Hashem wants and expects no more. But He does expect and demand that (but see rule three), and you are thus always under His scrutiny.

Rule Two: If you can do more, you have to.

Rule Three: You might be able to do more, but not right this instant; there might be a growth process involved. It’s okay, Hashem knows that, too. But you’ve got to start working on that growth process, or you’re going to be in trouble.

Ahhh, but how does one know whether or not one is doing his or her best? This is indeed a crucial question, since this is the determining factor of true success in one’s life.

I am afraid that the answer has no objective criteria. The ability to be introspective is crucial; the ability to see oneself and one’s strengths and weaknesses is essential; the ability to know one’s self objectively is vital. Since the above is almost never the case, it is fundamental and indispensable that one have a rebbi, guide, or mentor — someone who will be able to point out flaws that the person himself never sees, is unaware of, or doesn’t want to see.

To sum up: Chanukah reminds us of our responsibility to perform at our maximum (as per Bach). No, there is no downtime in Yiddishkeit! And the consequences are serious, as our history shows. And the dangers abound, as our lives reflect. But this is not a reason to despair — it is a reason for exhiliration and anticipation, since all that is expected of us is to do our best. It is thus actually a chessed Hashem that we are prodded and stimulated to perform up to our fullest potential.

I would also suggest that therein lies the point of difference between Beis Shammai (eight candles the first night, seven the next night, etc.) and Beis Hillel (one candle the first night; two the second, etc.). Perhaps the difference is how to go about finding your personal level of potential: what is your best? Beis Shammai hold: “go for it” — head for the top, do as much as you think is humanly possible; if you cannot maintain that, okay, try a lesser avodah; still unable — less, and less, down to a minimum, if you cannot do more. Beis Hillel says: no, on the contrary — start with small, baby steps, and s-l-o-w-l-y increase your avodah: e. g, have full kavanah during ONE brachah of Shemoneh Esrei, do that for a week, then increase to two, etc… Thus you will reach your maximum in a slow, conditioned, measured way.

May we all merit to reach our personal potentials, and reach the point where we find favor in the eyes of Hakadosh Baruch Hu.