Don’t Burn it Down – Burn it Up!

“Burn baby burn” is not something I thought we’d once again be hearing on streets in cities across America. That it has come in response to a horrific and revolting event, itself just one more in a history of sickening discrimination, leaves us with less hope at a time and in a world desperate for more of it.

Of course, Back lives matter,  responding “all lives matter” is to insult and demean those protesting the injustice of having people in positions of authority who don’t think that Black lives matter.  Further, I am unaware of people in power who believe that white lives don’t matter.

However, lost in all the noise and fury is an answer to the question – why do Black lives matter? Why do Brown lives matter? Why do any lives matter?

The answer, of course, is that any person’s life, no matter the race or color of that person, is a human life, and every human being is a unique, precious, and invaluable thing.

Unfortunately, it seems that we now live in a world that is rapidly losing sight of the essential reason that every human life is infinitely valuable. It’s not our intelligence and creativity, which gives us the ability to amass things – tangible or otherwise – that provide us with pleasure and satisfaction.  What is unique about a human is that he or she, alone in all of creation, can make a choice based on moral values.

An animal can also make intelligent choices, but those choices always come back to: “Does this or will this give me pleasure?” Only a human can choose based on an overarching value – is this right or is this wrong, is this honest or is it dishonest, is this good or is it evil – based on abstract moral values.   But to make those choices, we first need to know what those values are, how Good and Evil are defined using those values, and then to (hopefully) choose Good. Unfortunately, we live in a world where Good and Evil are generally taught and often defined using the standard: “If it will make me feel better, its Good, if the consequences will make me feel worse, it’s Evil.”

That is the logic that allows intelligent, articulate, and otherwise decent people to applaud passionate protests of injustice even as those protests are accompanied by horrible acts of injustice! Loudly protesting makes me feel good, and when there is no likelihood of being shamed, arrested, jailed, etc. then looting feels good; burning it down certainly feels good. You want to make a statement of how mad you are – burn it down! How do we change that paradigm?

I would suggest the very name of our Parsha – B’haalotcha – gives us an answer. It’s all about education.

This week’s Parsha begins with G-d’s command to Aaron “b’halotcha et haneirot: “when you kindle the lamps” (on the Menorah). Rashi notes that the word b’haalotcha doesn’t translate as “kindle”. Rather it means to raise and he explains that G-d is telling Aaron (and us) – it’s not enough to kindle the lamp – you need to “raise” it to the point where the flame rises on its own.

That point seems redundant. What possible reason would one have to kindle a lamp by holding the candle to the wick only long enough to have it begin to burn but not long enough to have it continue to burn on its own?

The Rebbe points out that Scripture defines  “the lamp of G-d” as the soul of man.  At the core, the very essence of every human being – call it a soul, a spirit, a spark – is a lamp that can light up and warm up the entire world. That lamp is what defines a human as human. It’s what the authors of the Declaration of Independence meant when they wrote every person is “endowed by the Creator”.

But that lamp is hidden – it needs to be uncovered. Man’s instinct is to feel good; he or she needs to be taught how to do good. That Lamp wants to shine – but, our natural desire to feel good completely conceals it.

That is what G-d tells Aaron,  and by extension, every educator tasked with imparting the life lessons needed to live a fully human life; it’s not enough to just kindle the lamp, give the information, and walk away. The lamp will simply burn down, and darkness will again prevail. Your job is “B’haalotcha” you need to raise the lamp to a point where the flame can burn up on its own. Doing that requires more than just kindling it – you also need to give it the fuel so that it can continue to give light.

Telling a young person that kindness is good and stealing is bad – generally imparts the message that when kindness is done to me, it’s good – when stealing it from me, it’s evil. But my doing kindness to others requires sacrifice, that doesn’t always feel good. Overcoming the temptation to take from others is difficult – why should I? The answer to that question – the fuel that’ll illuminate the darkness of those temptations –  is knowledge of the underlying principles that are the basis for the values we have.

Only when we resolve to begin teaching those fundamental – let’s call them what they are – G-d-given, divinely-inspired principles – to the next generation; can we expect that those Lamps, those infinitely precious human beings, will stop burning down and instead start burning up, higher and higher and higher.

About the Author
Yisrael Deren serves as Regional Director of Chabad Lubavitch in Connecticut and Senior Rabbi of Chabad of Stamford. Born in Davenport Iowa, raised in Pittsburgh, and educated under the Rebbe's supervision in Brooklyn and Israel, he, together with his wife Aviva, have been Shluchim of the Rebbe for close to 50 years.
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