How We Illuminate the World

Yael Eckstein  |  April 26, 2022

Elderly Jewish grandparents helping their grandson light Hanukkah candles.

He is to put the incense on the fire before the LORD, and the smoke of the incense will conceal the atonement cover above the tablets of the covenant law, so that he will not die. —Leviticus 16:13

Each week in synagogue, Jews read through the Torah from Genesis to Deuteronomy. The Torah portion for this week is Acharei Mot, which means “after the death,” from Leviticus 16:1—18:30.

As a mother of four, I am deeply aware that my children are always watching me and learning from what they see me do. It is an awesome responsibility — but also a great opportunity. When they see me pray in the mornings, they learn that it is important to start the day with prayer. When they see me thank my husband for everything he does, big or small, they learn the importance of saying “thank you.” 

I love this quote from the famous 19th-century teacher, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, who was known for emphasizing character development in our service of God: “I tried to change the world but found that I could not. I tried to change the city where I lived, but I was unsuccessful. Finally, I tried to change just my neighborhood, but again I was not successful. Ultimately, I concluded that I would have to change myself, and then, my light would change others around me.”

Rabbi Salanter’s message is that whatever we want to see in the world is what we need to become. Or as Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” But how does that happen?

How We Illuminate the World

This week’s Torah portion gives us a clue. Our verse today describes the service of the High Priest in the Temple on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. As part of this special service to gain atonement for the entire nation, the High Priest was required to bring incense into the Holy of Holies. As the Bible states, “He is to put the incense on the fire before the LORD,” meaning, inside the Holy of Holies, the innermost chamber of the Temple.

The Jewish sages explained that the incense could not be lit before the High Priest entered the sacred room. He was required to first enter the Holy of Holies and only then, light the incense. 

This seemingly technical detail has a message for how we should live our own lives. The requirement for the High Priest to light the incense while inside the Holy of Holies teaches us that when we seek to impact others, the place to start is from the inside out — from inside the sanctuary of our own souls. 

Only when we have lit a fire on the inside, can we turn outward and spread our light to others. Only a candle with a flame can light up other candles. How we illuminate the world is from the inside out.

Your Turn:

What change do you want to see in your world? Start from the inner sanctuary of your soul.

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