From the TAC President’s Desk: Lighting Candles of the Past and the Future: A Pre-Chanukah Message
“The Hill” — St. Louis, Missouri’s long-established Italian neighborhood — is the last place I expected to find Chanukah inspiration. While home for Thanksgiving with my family, we trekked to The Hill and meandered through its shops, many of which were already decorated for the holidays. Essential oils and natural aromas filled the sidewalk air as we entered a soap store. Upon entry, a buzz filled the room. Salespeople were explaining the historic St. Louis story of the company. The storefront was filled with hundreds of handmade soaps with dozens of scents, shapes and colors to choose from, while the back housed the factory in which the soaps were made. Immediately catching my eye was a Hebrew phrase carved into a light wooden plank, hanging above the registry. It read, in Hebrew letters, no English: “Dah lifnei mi atah omed.” To find this traditional Jewish reminder that we are always standing before God in a soap shop confused me immensely. Why is this here — in St. Louis? In an Italian neighborhood? In a soap store? With Christmas ornamentation in the front window?
As we began to shmooze with the store owner, we quickly realized that we had both lived on Kibbutz Hatzerim, spoke a good broken Hebrew, and learned all the rules of Kashrut from our grandmothers. He explained that his great-grandfather escaped France during the Inquisition, ran to a small city in Italy, and came to St. Louis for the 1904 World’s Fair, working as a barber. The phrase, “know before whom you stand” has become the family’s motto. But not according to its traditional meaning.
To him, it stands for a much broader concept - to always remember the generations under which you stand. Know the hardships your ancestors went through to get you where you are today. Know the values upon which they, and you, were brought up. And at the same time, know the next generations before whom you stand. Imagine your children, your children’s children and the future world at large. Think about the responsibilities that we face towards the earth and what we owe the next generation of Jewish people. Know how we must act for the people of tomorrow.
My soap-shop owner friend is battling the dichotomy of paying homage to the people who came before him while also creating a set of morals that will define his next generation and the next. And he is not the only one struggling to balance this two-sided coin. In an article for Vogue, world-renowned professor of social work Brene Brown writes that “we are neurobiologically hardwired for connection. When we stop caring what anyone thinks, we diminish our opportunities for connection… Yet, when we allow ourselves to be defined by what people think, we lose our capacity for authenticity and courage.” Brown is also balancing a dichotomy of interpersonal relationships with an intrinsic moral system.
I too find this dichotomy in my daily life. As young adults we each stand for our personal values while simultaneously being contributors towards a community. We are first and foremost individuals with rich stories and historical narratives of our past. And we are also united by our enrollment as students of Yeshiva University, articulating its future. The message I want to share with you is the same one my soap-shop owner shared with me - proudly stand rooted in the rich legacy of those who came before us at YU, and strongly articulate the future we want to see at YU.
With a new semester beginning in January, take a few moments to find where you can make a stamp on our university. As Brown writes, be authentically and courageously yourself, while also finding a community to connect with. And if you don’t see it? Create it. Club applications start again in January. Open an sstud/ystud and attend an event you might never have seen yourself at. Stay in for Shabbat. Say hello to the person sitting next to you in class. Challenge a norm. Create a new normal. Great leaders succeed not because the path is easy, but because they believe and continue on in their mission despite its obstacles.
Chanukah, though the darkest time of the year, is a source of great light for the Jewish people. Anne Frank wrote that “a single candle can both define and defy the darkness.” Know that one person, one action, one event have defined entire generations, and, defying all odds, can change the future. Dah lifnei mi atah omed — know the past and also know the future.
This Chanukah, let us all “know before who we stand” — both our past generations and the ones who will come after us. Let us have the authenticity to proudly take our place in the history of YU. Let us have the courage to define its destiny. Let us be both individuals and community members. Let us light new candles whose glow will remind us of our inspiring past and whose radiance will ignite the path forward towards the future we must create.
Ignited by the Chanukah lights, destiny’s path is in our hands.
Recall bright leaders of the past, for they will enlighten our future.
Photo caption: Chanukah, though the darkest time of the year, is a source of great inspiration for the Jewish people
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons