A story from Chabad: R. Joseph Isaac Schneerson once recalled a thought-provoking conversation between his father and predecessor, R. Sholom Dov-Ber, and a chassid, a righteous Jew.
The Chassid asked: "Rebbe, what is a Chassid?"
R. Sholom Dov-Ber answered: "A Chassid is a street-lamp-lighter. A street-lamp-lighter has a pole with fire. He knows that the fire is not his own, and he goes around lighting all lamps on his route."
The Chassid asked: "But what if the lamp is in a desolate wilderness?"
The Rebbe answered: "Then, too, one must light it. Let it be noted that there is a wilderness, and let the wilderness feel ashamed before the light."
"But what if the lamp is in the midst of a sea?"
"Then one must take off the clothes, jump into the water and light it there!"
"And that is a Chassid?"
The Rebbe thought for a long moment and then said: "Yes, *that* is a Chassid."
The Chassid continued:"Rebbe, I see no lamps!"
"That is because you are not a street-lamp-lighter."
"How does one become such?"
The Rebbe replied: "One must avoid evil. When beginning with oneself, cleansing oneself, becoming more refined, then one sees the lamp of the other. When, Heaven forbid, one is crude, then one sees but crudeness; but when himself noble, one sees nobility."
When the his son recounted this conversation, his son added: The lamps are there, but they need to be lit. It is written, "The soul of man is a lamp of God" (Proverbs 20:27), and it is also written, "A mitzvah is a lamp and the Torah is light" (Proverbs 6:23). A Chassid is someone who puts their personal affairs aside and goes around lighting up the souls of Jews with the light of Torah and mitzvot. Jewish souls are in readiness to be lit. Sometimes they are around the corner. Sometimes they are in a wilderness or at sea. But there must be someone who disregards personal comforts and conveniences and goes out to put a light to these lamps. That is the function of a true Chassid.”
The darkness of winter need not be terrifying, it can be an exciting opportunity. Where there is spiritual darkness, we can bring light. Where there is despair, we can bring hope. Where there is fear, we can bring courage. The sacred task of the Jew is to be a lamplighter, an igniter of souls.
But, are we really meant to disregard personal comfort and convenience in order to go round igniting the souls of others? To many of us who live comfortable lives, that doesn’t sound very appealing. More than that, if the sacred task of the righteous Jew is to go round igniting the souls of others, does that mean that if we don’t do that, or can’t do that, then we’re not very good Jews?
I suspect that many people today feel like their light isn’t worth shining to the rest of the world. Perhaps they feel fragile, like a delicate little candle ready to be extinguished at any moment by the lightest breeze, so we keep a flame burning within, but are afraid to show it for fear of being accused of zealotry or for fear of it being extinguished. But while the message of this story is very powerful, I think it misses an essential element, which is that of community. We’re not a lone candle, we’re a Chanukiah of candles. It’s not just the case that a little light dispels a lot of darkness, although that it obviously true. In fact, a lot of light, shining together, radiating warmth, dispels even more darkness. So, where is may have once been true that the chassid needed to forgo everything and rush off alone into the wilderness to ignite souls, we do things differently. Instead of lone lamplighters, we aim to become a community of lamplighters. We turn within before we turn without. We add candles to the Chanukiah just as we try to add people to a warm, loving community. We ignite each other’s souls, we help those around us burn as bright as they can, before scurrying through the dark. As a community, we shine with a warmth and a radiance that could never be matched by one of us alone, and then together we go out into the world and light the souls of others.
May God help ignite our own souls as individuals and as a community so that we may burn ever brighter each and every day, and let us say, Amen.