Routine can be boring. You do it every day and you grow tired of it. We are always looking for something new and exciting. Something to pique our interest and engage our curiosity. Routine doesn’t do the trick. We need something novel, something unusual, something unexpected. The problem with new things is that the novelty wears off and as it does, the excitement tapers off. We need a middle ground—a routine that keeps us steady and focused, spiced the occasional novelty to stimulate and spark excitement.
The basic rabbinic requirement for Chanukah is that every household kindles a single light each night of Chanukah. This represents a steady routine that offers little excitement, but one to which we stick without fail. Each night, the same routine; a single candle that we never miss. However, almost no one observes Chanukah that way. Most of us light a different number of candles each day.
One of the famous disputes between the houses of Shamai and Hillel centered on the number of Chanukah lights to kindle each night. The house of Shamai said, kindle eight candles the first night and decrease by one candle each night. The House of Hillel suggested the opposite. Start with one candle the first night and increase by one candle each night.
If you think about it, you will realize that these two opinions seek to infuse novelty and excitement into an otherwise boring routine. One candle each night can grow boring. Says Shamai, don’t just kindle one, start with a bang. Kindle all eight. The problem with Shamai’s approach is that exciting things don’t remain exciting for long. The second night you will light seven and the third night you will light six, until you return to your baseline of one. In other words, things that start off with excitement, end off as routine.
The house of Hillel took a different approach. Begin with the routine, said Hillel, but add to it every night. Make sure that your routine is constantly spiced with something new. Something different. This way, you will never grow bored. You can’t have just the new exciting projects because you will never have consistency. You must have routine but spice it up with a steady diet of freshness and excitement.
In our calendar, Rosh Chodesh, the first of the Jewish month, represents newness and excitement. The Hebrew word for month, chodesh, comes from the root chadash, which means new. When the moon reappears as a sliver after having faded completely, a new month begins.
Rosh Chodesh ushers in a new month with new possibilities. It is always an exciting day. But there is something interesting about the Torah portion that we read on Rosh Chodesh. Rather than beginning with a description of the offerings brought in the Temple on Rosh Chodesh, we begin with a description of the daily offerings. Every day without fail, two offerings were brought in the Temple. One in the morning and one in the evening. There was never an interruption in this routine.
Why does the celebration of a new month begin with a description of the daily routine? To remind us that no matter how novel and exciting the new month is, it will not be new for long. The novelty will soon wear off and when it does, the routine must be there to keep us going. We can never let go of the routine, not even in the excitement of something new, because if the routine falters there will be nothing to lift us when the novelty wears off.
On the other hand, the routine itself can’t carry us for long. It grows boring and we lose interest. This is why we spice up the routine with the monthly freshness of Rosh Chodesh.
If you think about the Jewish calendar, you will see that it is a healthy mix of routine and novelty. On the one hand, we have a daily routine of prayers and observances. On the other hand, there is hardly a two month stretch without a festival or day of note. The first month is filled with holidays. Two months later, we celebrate Chanukah. Less than six weeks later, is Tu Bishvat. A month after that, comes Purim. A month later, is Pesach. Six weeks later is Shavuot. The next month is marked by the fast of the seventeenth of Tamuz commemorating the fall of Jerusalem. The next month has the fast of the ninth of Av, commemorating the destruction of the Temple, and Tu Be’av, the happiest day in the Jewish calendar. Then comes the final month of the year, which ushers in the High Holidays all over again.
Chanukah Rosh Chodesh
Here is an interesting question. When Rosh Chodesh falls on Shabbat, we add a special Torah reading for Rosh Chodesh. When Chanukah falls on Shabbat, we add a special Torah reading for Chanukah. What happens when Rosh Chodesh and Chanukah both fall on Shabbat, as is the case this Shabbat? We add two readings, one for Chanukah and one for Rosh Chodesh, but which comes first?
Here the roles are reversed. Compared to every Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh is the novelty. But compared to Chanukah, which occurs only once a year, Rosh Chodesh is the novelty because it occurs every month. So, who should get the nod, should the Chanukah reading come first because it occurs once a year or should the Rosh Chodesh reading come first because it occurs more often?
Based on this essay, we would assume that the nod would go to the novel and exciting Chanukah, right? Well, wrong actually. The nod goes to Rosh Chodesh. Our sages taught that if you must do two things, one is part of your routine and the other is not, you must see to the routine first. Since Rosh Chodesh is the more common occurrence, it receives the nod. The Rosh Chodesh reading comes first.
This is a reminder that although novelty is a very important part of our calendar, the routine is the foundation. It is the framework within which the novelty is placed. It is the structure to which the novelty adds passion. If you always seek the thrill of excitement and flit about from one novel excitement to the next, you won’t accomplish much. The routine, boring as it is, is where progress is made. Novelty is important to stimulate our interest, but the routine is the foundation.
This is why some of our sages taught that the most important verse in the Torah is, “One sheep shall you offer in the morning, and one sheep shall you offer in the evening.” Beyond the importance of the exciting Shabbat offerings that are brought once a week, and the Rosh Chodesh offerings that are brought once a month, and even the festival offerings that are brought once a year, is the everyday offering. It is not as exciting as some of the Torah’s other verses. The verses, “Hear O Israel,” and, “Love your fellow Jew,” are more inspiring, but the routine of the daily offerings is the foundation.
Vacations and holidays are stimulating, they are exciting, and one anticipates them for months on end. But life’s goals are not reached in these glittering moments. Those can only be achieved in the daily grind. So, wake up to the new day with alacrity. You did it yesterday, and you will do it again tomorrow, but because of that, you will grow steadily from strength to greater strength.