Keeping the Light Burning: A Middle Path to Well-Being During Trying Times

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, February 23, 2024 / 14 Adar Rishon 5784

Summary: This week’s Torah portion highlights a way to think about thriving during challenging times.

Reading Time: Four minutes

Times are challenging; the vision of a shared society seems harder for many to maintain in our era, whether we are discussing life within Israel’s “Green Line,” the recent decision about frozen embryos issued by Alabama’s Supreme Court, refugee policy in Europe, or China’s surveillance state and restricted human rights. It is difficult to ascertain whether things are worse today than in previous eras; it seems clear, however, that a great many people feel things are worse, and this impacts their capacity to work toward the better world we all wish would arrive sooner than it ever does. Many people are throwing their hands up.

Life is hard sometimes. It raises questions about the utility of optimism and pessimism, as well as whether we can control how we feel about the world. For example, psychologists and neurobiologists have been studying the mechanisms and effects that optimism and pessimism have on us. Some of us seem more wired for optimism, what psychologists have labeled “dispositional optimism.” According to some of these researchers, this form of optimism seems stable, regardless of external realities. Similarly, other people seem to suffer from what I call “the Eeyore syndrome.” Eeyore is the perpetually morose donkey in Winnie-the-Pooh.

Apart from these more innate tendencies, most of us actually have some control over how optimistic or pessimistic we are, for so often the thoughts we focus on can lead us in one direction or another. Moreover, while there are many health benefits to optimism, there are also dangers to optimism. For example, Keith Hmieleski, a professor of entrepreneurship, has discovered that optimists are more effective in stable environments, while pessimists perform better in dynamically unstable environments (

Judaism has something to say about finding a way to balance these twin human tendencies; it received its most complete treatment in Maimonides’ concept of the derekh habeinonit, or the Middle Path. Maimonides advocated that we should try to conduct ourselves in a moderate manner, whether that was in matters of health, spiritual or physical activity, and even emotional regulation.

Some commentators on this week’s Torah reading of Tetzaveh offer additional insights that they derive from the commandment to keep the ancient Menorah burning:

בְּאֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵד֩ מִח֨וּץ לַפָּרֹ֜כֶת אֲשֶׁ֣ר עַל־הָעֵדֻ֗ת יַעֲרֹךְ֩ אֹת֨וֹ אַהֲרֹ֧ן וּבָנָ֛יו מֵעֶ֥רֶב עַד־בֹּ֖קֶר לִפְנֵ֣י ה׳ חֻקַּ֤ת עוֹלָם֙ לְדֹ֣רֹתָ֔ם מֵאֵ֖ת בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ {ס}

“Aaron and his sons shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting (Mishkan or Tabernacle), outside the curtain which is over [the Ark of] the Pact, [to burn] from evening to morning before God. It shall be a due from the Israelites for all time, throughout the ages” (Sefaria).

How does one keep the light of optimism burning?

At the beginning of this week’s Torah reading, Tetzaveh, we encounter the mitzvah to keep the Menorah burning:

Tiferet Shlomo, a 19th century Polish commentary understands the purpose of the Menorah as a bulwark against our darkest impulse:

“[This commandment to ignite the candles from evening to morning] is because nighttime is the domain of the external forces of darkness and of the Sitra Achra (the demonic forces of destruction) that act against our souls…and this commandment guards our souls so that we can remain connected to sources of holiness (my translation).

The Tiferet Shlomo understands that while darkness, despair, and hopelessness may be a natural part of the world, we have to take action to prevent these emotions from becoming embedded in our psyche. Anyone who has had a frightening dream knows that getting up and turning on the light can ease our nocturnal fears. Applying this lesson to our own lives, it’s important that we develop our own “menorah”—or positive actions that we can take so that our very natural feelings remain what they are meant to be—temporary experiences that inform us but don’t take over our hearts and minds.

There is a more technical discussion of the Menorah and the oil that was used that can also be useful in this. The Da’at HaZekenim, a medieval compilation composed by some of Rashi’s grandchildren in the 12th and 13th centuries, commented on our verse: “‘from evening to the next morning;’ according to Rashi, this means that the menorah’s lights are to burn from nightfall to sunrise, the amount of oil in each lamp being calculated according to the length of the night in the month of Kislev…” (Sefaria).

A little darkness is useful. It can let us know when someone has trespassed against us, when we are not living a balanced life, or when the dark forces of the world need our attention and love. This notion of measuring out how much time we allow ourselves to wallow, even as we take steps to make sure it doesn’t go too far, is intriguing. It gives us permission to feel the full spectrum of human emotion, even as it encourages us to be strategic with our inner life.

When times are tough, it is normal to feel despair. Yet we have the ability to temper that and find our own middle path back to well-being.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. How often do you find yourself experiencing feelings of despair, hopelessness, or anxiety? When these feelings arise, how do you handle them?
  2. What activities help you regain your balance?
  3. Sometimes our emotions are so powerful that we tend to think what we feel is an accurate picture of the world. Have you noticed this in yourself? Can you catch the thoughts that accompany those feelings? Do they strengthen or weaken the pull of your difficult emotions?

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