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Toward Shabbat: Vayikra

Last Shabbat started like every other Shabbat for me, with the lighting of candles. However, unlike most Shabbatot, I was not standing with my family. Instead, I was surrounded by 25 7th- and 8th-grade teens from the BJ community in a hotel in Washington, DC. After studying the Holocaust in Haverim, our religious school program, or in their various Jewish schools, these teens were spending the weekend there, enjoying Shabbat together, touring the monuments, and visiting the Holocaust Museum.

I grew up lighting two candles to welcome Shabbat each week. I now have a new tradition in my home, which is to bring in Shabbat each week by lighting three candles, one for each member of my immediate family.

The Torah references the Ten Commandments twice, once in the second book of the Torah, Shemot (Exodus), and again in the final book, Devarim (Deuteronomy). Each version uses slightly different phrasing to refer to the commandment of Shabbat, and the tradition to light two Shabbat candles comes from these two different verbs. The Shemot version tells us to “zakhor” (“remember”) Shabbat, whereas in Devarim we are commanded to “shamor” (“observe”) Shabbat.

Zakhor: On Shabbat we remember the act of creation, that each and every one of us was made in the image of the Divine. On Shabbat we remember that we were once slaves in Egypt—that we were strangers in a strange land and that, just as we yearned for others to treat us with kindness, we must care deeply for the stranger, refugee, and powerless among us. This is a message that is especially pervasive this Shabbat, the Shabbat preceding Purim that is traditionally called “Shabbat Zakhor.” This is the Shabbat when we remember the evilness of Amalek, the enemy that attacked our people in the desert, killing the weak and vulnerable first. We remember so that it will not happen again.

Shamor: On Shabbat we observe and celebrate, by creating a time and space for ritual. We observe Shabbat by being in a community—by praying, eating, singing, and spending time with the people we love and cherish. We observe as a reminder of the power of action and the importance of not only remembering but also of doing, as a way of living out our values. We were made in the image of God and it is incumbent upon us to celebrate that by preserving human life and enjoying our lives in all ways possible. We were strangers once and so we are responsible to act on behalf of all who find themselves persecuted, enslaved, or forced to relocate.

By lighting two candles we honor both aspects of Shabbat; each needs the other in order to be complete.

And then there are those who light more than two candles a week, like me, who have the tradition of lighting one candle per immediate family member. This tradition stems from the beautiful Biblical verse in Proverbs (Mishlei) 20:27:

נֵ֣ר ה’ נִשְׁמַ֣ת אָדָ֑ם

The soul of a person is God’s lamp. 

This tradition, much like lighting two candles, also compels us to value the uniqueness of every human soul. As we gaze into the flame of each Shabbat candle, we are reminded that it is through each of us, through every living being, that God is able to illuminate the world. When we light our Shabbat candles, no matter how many we are lighting, we are affirming the value of human life—our own, that of our loved ones, and that of the stranger.

At the end of our visit to the Holocaust Museum, in a small room off to the side and surrounded by walls imprinted with the word “zakhor,” we read the story of Hannah Senesh. Hannah was born in Hungary and immigrated to Palestine in 1939, where she joined the Pre-State army and became a paratrooper. In the midst of World War II, in 1944, she sacrificed her own life to try to save the lives of others in Hungary. As our final reflection in the museum, we read aloud the line from the book Broken Grindstones by Haim Hazaz, a quote that Hannah said had profound impact on her life and the decisions she made:

All the darkness can’t extinguish a single candle, yet one candle can illuminate all the darkness. 

On this Shabbat Zakhor, may the light of our Shabbat candles ignite within us a call for action, an urgency to honor and preserve human life, and a light that has the power to illuminate all the darkness.