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Sunday, March 29, 2020

Living the Good Life (Shabbos 23)


On his way to shul, Rav Huna would often pass by the home of Rabbi Avin the carpenter. Noticing that Rabbi Avin would habitually kindle a multitude of lights in honour of Shabbat, he declared, “Two great men will emerge from this household.”  Sure enough, two of our greatest Sages came from the family: Rav Idi bar Avin and Rav Chia bar Avin.

On his way to shul, Rav Chisda would often pass by the home of Rav Sheizvi’s father-in-law.  Noticing that they were similarly habitual in their kindling of a multitude of lights in honour of Shabbat, he declared, “A great person will emerge from this household.”  Sure enough, their daughter eventually married Rav Sheizvi.

אָמַר רַב הוּנָא: הָרָגִיל בְּנֵר הָוְיִין לֵיהּ בָּנִים תַּלְמִידֵי חֲכָמִים. הַזָּהִיר בִּמְזוּזָה — זוֹכֶה לְדִירָה נָאָה. הַזָּהִיר בְּצִיצִית — זוֹכֶה לְטַלִּית נָאָה. הַזָּהִיר בְּקִידּוּשׁ הַיּוֹם — זוֹכֶה וּמְמַלֵּא גַּרְבֵי יַיִן. רַב הוּנָא הֲוָה רְגִיל דַּהֲוָה חָלֵיף וְתָנֵי אַפִּתְחָא דְרַבִּי אָבִין נַגָּרָא. חֲזָא דַּהֲוָה רְגִיל בִּשְׁרָגֵי טוּבָא, אֲמַר: תְּרֵי גַּבְרֵי רַבְרְבֵי נָפְקִי מֵהָכָא. נָפְקִי מִינַּיְיהוּ רַב אִידִי בַּר אָבִין וְרַב חִיָּיא בַּר אָבִין. רַב חִסְדָּא הֲוָה רְגִיל דַּהֲוָה חָלֵיף וְתָנֵי אַפִּיתְחָא דְּבֵי נָשָׁא דְּרַב שֵׁיזְבִי. חֲזָא דַּהֲוָה רְגִיל בִּשְׁרָגֵי טוּבָא, אֲמַר: גַּבְרָא רַבָּא נָפֵק מֵהָכָא. נְפַק מִינַּיְיהוּ רַב שֵׁיזְבִי

Rav Huna said: One who is habitual in the kindling of lights on Shabbat and Chanukah will be rewarded with children who are Torah scholars. One who is meticulous in performing the mitzvah of mezuzah will merit a beautiful house.  One who is meticulous in performing the mitzvah of tzitzis will merit beautiful garments. One who is meticulous in performing the mitzvah of kiddush of the day will merit to fill many jugs of wine.

אָמַר רָבָא: דְּרָחֵים רַבָּנַן, הָווּ לֵיהּ בְּנִין רַבָּנַן. דְּמוֹקִיר רַבָּנַן, הָווּ לֵיהּ חַתְנָווֹתָא רַבָּנַן. דְּדָחֵיל מֵרַבָּנָן, הוּא גּוּפֵיהּ הָוֵי צוּרְבָּא מֵרַבָּנַן. וְאִי לָאו בַּר הָכֵי הוּא, מִשְׁתַּמְעָן מִילֵּיהּ כְּצוּרְבָּא מֵרַבָּנַן

Rava said: One who loves Sages will have children who are Sages. One who honours Sages will have sons-in-law who are Sages. One who reveres the Sages will himself become a Torah scholar. And if he is not capable, his statements will be received like those of a Torah scholar.

Rav Huna offers a number of sensible recommendations. They all seem very straightforward.  But a careful reading reveals the difference between those who adhere to his extraordinary guidelines and those who take the path of least resistance.  Going the extra mile produces results that are above and beyond.

Let’s begin with the advice to be habitual in the kindling of Shabbat and Chanukah lights.  In some homes, 6:03pm candle-lighting time means that the candles have been lit and are shining bright by 6:02 and a half.  Like clockwork. Often even earlier.  So that when people pass by their homes on the way to shul, an aura of tranquillity and sanctity emanates from the house.  You can tell that Shabbat has arrived.   That’s what Rav Huna and Rav Chisda felt when they passed by the homes of Rav Avin the carpenter and Rav Sheizvi’s in-laws respectively. 

Other homes, 6:03 is code-word for 6:21, because everyone knows that there’s really an additional 18 minutes until Shabbat!  And so at 6:20, they’re fumbling around looking for candles and shouting at one another about whose job it was to get it all ready.  If that sounds at all familiar, it’s really not difficult at all to switch gears.  It’s all about the habits we keep.  If you simply get into a pattern of getting ready earlier – don’t think 18 minutes, think a half hour – you’ll find the entry into Shabbat a whole different experience. 

When children see that, they feel the warmth and embrace it.  Hence, the merit of the children and children-in-law who emerged from those homes.  And that’s why Rava talks about begetting righteous children-in-law.  The examples we set for love, honour, and reverence of Torah and its scholars permeate our lives, and impact the minds and hearts of our family members, influencing the lifestyle decisions they eventually make.

What is the difference between fulfilling the mitzvah of mezuzah and being meticulous in the mitzvah?  Many people seek to minimize the ‘damage’ of their mezuzah bill, by finding the cheapest scrolls available and finding leniencies for which doorways actually require the affixing of a mezuzah.  Sure, they’ve executed their duty of placing a mezuzah, but at the same time, they’ve done whatever they could to avoid paying any more than absolutely necessary.

But a mezuzah is a mezuzah!  Why should you pay £50 when you can find one for £30?  To answer that question, think about the price of an automobile.  Why pay £200 grand on a Lamborghini when you can get by with a £10k Kia? They both get you from point A to B!  Rav Huna’s advice is wonderful: In our tradition, it’s not a question of either/or.  You don’t have to sacrifice physical and material comforts for the spiritual.  You can have it all, because everything is intrinsically connected. 

You don’t really need a home with beautiful furnishings.  All you really need is a roof over your head.  But Judaism is entirely comfortable with the pursuit of the good life. God wants you to have the nicest home possible.  Hence, Rav Huna’s advice: Value your spiritual home-furnishings, and you will merit a gorgeous home.  Nice mezuzos will bring both spiritual and material blessing into the home. 

Let’s talk about tzitzis.  Strictly speaking, if you happen to own a four-cornered garment, then you are obligated to tie tassels onto the corners.  But nowadays, who owns a four-cornered garment?  Theoretically therefore, there should be no need for tzitzis anymore.  But with that attitude, nobody ever would have worn tzitzis.  Even in ancient times, when they cloaked themselves in large four-cornered robes, an easy way to opt out of the obligation was to cut off or round one of the corners. Hence the expression ‘cutting corners’!

But when you think about it, we don’t really need to wear fancy brand-label clothing either.  We could get by buying our suits off the rack at Walmart.  So it doesn’t fit perfectly, and it is last decade’s style.  Does it really make a difference?  But that’s not Judaism’s view of matters.  You are a prince and a princess of the Supreme King of Kings.  Your Father wants you to look like royalty!

We wear tzitzis despite not really needing to in order to demonstrate our love for mitzvos.  We’ve deliberately chosen to don a four-cornered garment and obligate ourselves in the mitzvah.  We’re not looking to cut corners.  We want to wear the finest spiritual garments available.  And with that, we merit wearing the finest physical garments.

And finally, let’s turn to Kiddush wine.  I marvel at how often we have Shabbat guests who are surprised when I open a nice bottle of wine and proceed to pour it into the becher (cup) for Kiddush. ‘We never knew you could use real wine for Kiddush,’ they exclaim, ‘We always thought it had to be sweet sacramental wine.’  And so all week long, they’ll partake of the fanciest wines.  But comes the great mitzvah of Kiddush on Shabbat, and they’re drinking sweet wine or grape juice.  Not that they really like the taste, but ‘that’s what we’ve always done.’ 

The truth is, we didn’t always drink sweet wine for Kiddush.  It’s not clear when or how it happened, but somewhere along the line, Jews forgot the art of fine winemaking.  In Talmudic times, we loved good wine.  In the medieval ages, we loved good wine.  And then, as we were no longer able to own agricultural property, good wine became a scarce commodity in the Jewish community.  Nowadays, thank God, we have returned to our glory days, with some of the world’s finest wines coming out of Israel and kosher wineries around the world.  If you secretly dream of owning a nice liquor collection, Rav Huna suggests using only your best wines for the mitzvah of Kiddush.

Judaism teaches that you can have it all.  The secret to the good life is to value material blessing and utilize it for spiritual pursuits.  Since the physical, material, and spiritual are all intertwined, all you need to do is turn on Heaven’s tap and the blessing will flow to every area of your life.  May you offer the very best of your material blessing to Heaven and enjoy the good life that will then flow to you!

Comfort the Afflicted and Afflict the Comfortable (Shabbos 22)

Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and exiled the Jewish people from the Land of Israel.  Many of the captives were put to work for the Babylonian king himself, including four young men, called Daniel, Chanania, Mishael, and Azaria.  These four lads were from aristocratic families and Nebuchadnezzar was impressed by their wisdom and charm.  He appointed them to ministerial positions in the palace, where they maintained their incredible faith and righteousness, in the face of great pressure to conform.  They adopted a strict vegetarian diet and abstained from wine. 

One morning, the king awoke in a baffled state.  He was bothered by his dream which he could not recall.  Daniel managed to help him remember and make sense of the perplexing vision.  As a result, he was promoted as a special adviser to the king.  Even so, as we all know, despite the prominence of his post, eventually Daniel would be cast into a lion’s den.  Nevertheless, the Almighty was with him and he was able to befriend the hungry beasts and survive the ordeal.

On one occasion, the king decided to build a large statue in the Valley of Dura and commanded all his subjects to worship the graven image.  Shocked to hear that the four young men had refused, Nebuchadnezzar decided to make a public example of them.  As the king’s adviser, Daniel was spared, but his three friends were cast into a fiery furnace.  So hot was the fire that those that had escorted them to the furnace were burned alive.  As for Chanania, Mishael, and Azaria, they emerged unscathed, having received angelic protection.  The king was awestruck and elevated them to further positions of prominence in his royal court.

וַיֵּלֶךְ יוֹסֵף אַחַר אֶחָיו וַיִּמְצָאֵם בְּדֹתָן׃ יחוַיִּרְאוּ אֹתוֹ מֵרָחֹק וּבְטֶרֶם יִקְרַב אֲלֵיהֶם וַיִּתְנַכְּלוּ אֹתוֹ לַהֲמִיתוֹ׃ יטוַיֹּאמְרוּ אִישׁ אֶל־אָחִיו הִנֵּה בַּעַל הַחֲלֹמוֹת הַלָּזֶה בָּא׃ כוְעַתָּה לְכוּ וְנַהַרְגֵהוּ וְנַשְׁלִכֵהוּ בְּאַחַד הַבֹּרוֹת וְאָמַרְנוּ חַיָּה רָעָה אֲכָלָתְהוּ וְנִרְאֶה מַה־יִּהְיוּ חֲלֹמֹתָיו׃ כאוַיִּשְׁמַע רְאוּבֵן וַיַּצִּלֵהוּ מִיָּדָם וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא נַכֶּנּוּ נָפֶשׁ׃ כבוַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם רְאוּבֵן אַל־תִּשְׁפְּכוּ־דָם הַשְׁלִיכוּ אֹתוֹ אֶל־הַבּוֹר הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר בַּמִּדְבָּר וְיָד אַל־תִּשְׁלְחוּ־בוֹ לְמַעַן הַצִּיל אֹתוֹ מִיָּדָם לַהֲשִׁיבוֹ אֶל־אָבִיו׃ כגוַיְהִי כַּאֲשֶׁר־בָּא יוֹסֵף אֶל־אֶחָיו וַיַּפְשִׁיטוּ אֶת־יוֹסֵף אֶת־כֻּתָּנְתּוֹ אֶת־כְּתֹנֶת הַפַּסִּים אֲשֶׁר עָלָיו׃ כדוַיִּקָּחֻהוּ וַיַּשְׁלִכוּ אֹתוֹ הַבֹּרָה וְהַבּוֹר רֵק אֵין בּוֹ מָיִם
So Joseph followed his brothers and found them at Dothan. They saw him from afar, and before he came close to them they conspired to kill him. They said to one another, “Here comes that dreamer! Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; and we can say, ‘A savage beast devoured him.’ We shall see what comes of his dreams!” But when Reuben heard it, he tried to save him from them. He said, “Let us not take his life.” And Reuben went on, “Shed no blood! Cast him into that pit out in the wilderness, but do not touch him yourselves”—intending to save him from them and restore him to his father. When Joseph came up to his brothers, they stripped Joseph of his tunic, the ornamented tunic that he was wearing, and took him and cast him into the pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.

וְאָמַר רַב כָּהֲנָא, דָּרֵשׁ רַב נָתָן בַּר מִנְיוֹמֵי מִשְּׁמֵיהּ דְּרַב תַּנְחוּם: מַאי דִכְתִיב ״וְהַבּוֹר רֵק אֵין בּוֹ מָיִם״? מִמַּשְׁמַע שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר ״וְהַבּוֹר רֵק״ אֵינִי יוֹדֵעַ שֶׁאֵין בּוֹ מָיִם? אֶלָּא מַה תַּלְמוּד לוֹמַר ״אֵין בּוֹ מָיִם״ — מַיִם אֵין בּוֹ, אֲבָל נְחָשִׁים וְעַקְרַבִּים יֵשׁ בּוֹ
Rav Kahana quoted Rav Nasan bar Manyumi citing Rav Tancḥum: What is the meaning of the scripture, “and the pit was empty, there was no water in it”? By inference from that which is stated: And the pit was empty, don’t I know that there was no water in it? Rather, why does the verse say: There was no water in it? Water, there was none of it, but there were snakes and scorpions inside.

If there were snakes and scorpions in the pit, then how could the Torah say that it was empty?  Ramban explains that the brothers didn’t realize that there were serpents inside.  Had they known that they’d thrown Yosef into a dangerous pit and he’d survived, they would have realized how holy he was and refrained from selling him into slavery.  Just like Nebuchadnezzar, who treated Daniel, Chanania, Mishael and Azaria like royalty after their miracles, Yosef’s miraculous feat of surviving a snake-infested pit should have transformed their attitudes towards him.  The fact that their enmity remained suggests that they had no idea of his close call and miraculous escape.

The problem with a simple reading of Ramban is that if the brothers didn’t know about the serpents, and the serpents didn’t affect Yosef, then what difference did their existence make?  It’s like the proverbial tree that falls in the forest!  Why would the Gemara point out an irrelevant fact, of no consequence to the plotline?  

Rather, Ramban is imparting a powerful message.  Of course they knew there were snakes in the pit.  According to the Zohar, they deliberately chose a pit lacking water, but containing serpents so that they would not harm him directly.  Throwing him into a pit of water, they would have been guilty of drowning him.  But in a pit of serpents, it would be up to God to decide whether to allow the creatures to attack, just like Daniel in the Lions’ den.  If he died, they figured, it would have been Heaven’s decree.

So if indeed he survived, why did they then sell him into slavery?  At that point, it became clear to them the spiritual threat he posed to them.  Here, living amongst them, was a paragon of virtue and goodness.  So righteous was he that God was prepared to perform miracles for him.  If he’d survived poisonous snakes, then they could sleep at night, knowing that Hashem would protect their brother wherever he might end up. 

And they didn’t really care where he ended up, as long as it wasn’t anywhere near them.  Now that his threatening presence had been removed from their midst, they could breathe a collective sigh of relief.  No more dreams about agriculture and farming when all they wanted was the carefree nomadic life of a shepherd.  No more suggesting to them to dream for the skies, the sun, stars and the moon, they were happy, thank you, with their simple life.  And no more little brother preaching to them about their religious life and practice.  They could live life the way they chose without his virtuousness constantly showing up their relatively laidback attitude.

In the early twentieth century, an adage was borrowed from the print-media by American clergy and adapted to describe the role of religious leaders.  They must “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted.”  The man of the cloth is not in situ to make people feel good about themselves.  That’s what your favourite internet echo-chamber is for.  A good spiritual leader says the right things to bring comfort to the flock when they are in pain.  A great spiritual leader is not afraid to challenge their comfortable flock to leave their comfort zone and grow spiritually.

While the above phrase may have been coined by a newspaper columnist around the turn of last century, the concept has always existed in the Jewish tradition.  In the nineteenth century, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter summed it up as follows, ‘A rabbi who does not find favour in the eyes of his congregants is a bad rabbi.  But a rabbi who finds favour in the eyes of all his congregants is a terrible rabbi.’  The rabbi who always tells people want they want to hear is not fulfilling his Divine mission.  An effective rabbi constantly challenges his balabatim (members) to think more, do more, and grow more, even to the point of making them feel uncomfortable.

In the aleinu prayer, we praise “Hashem who is God in the heavens above and in the earth below.”  A chasidic adage quips that human nature is to look up to the person with greater material prosperity and wish for what they have, but to look down upon the person who is less religiously observant and gloat over our higher level of spiritual commitment.  In fact, the proper approach is “in the heavens” – when it comes to religion, I should be looking “above.”  And “in the earth” – when it comes to worldly pursuits, “below” – I should be looking at all the people worse off than me materially.    May you never be afraid to surround yourself with people you can look up to religiously, and may they inspire you to strive for ever-higher spiritual levels! 

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Become a Darknessbuster! (Shabbos 21)


Chanukah is the Festival of Lights.  We all know the reason for the celebration.  After driving out the Greeks from Israel, we found only a single pure flask of oil, enough to burn but one day in the Menorah in the Holy Temple.  Miraculously, it burned for eight days, enough time to produce a new batch of kosher oil.

One of the most famous halachic questions about Chanukah concerns the length of the festival.  If there was enough oil in the jug to last for one day and a miracle occurred extending its life to eight days, then were there not merely seven miraculous days?  One answer is that each day only one eighth of the oil in the menorah disappeared.  And so even on the first day, while all the oil should have disappeared, only a small amount was burned.  And so that day too was miraculous.

תָּנוּ רַבָּנַן: מִצְוַת חֲנוּכָּה, נֵר אִישׁ וּבֵיתוֹ. וְהַמְהַדְּרִין, נֵר לְכׇל אֶחָד וְאֶחָד. וְהַמְהַדְּרִין מִן הַמְהַדְּרִין, בֵּית שַׁמַּאי אוֹמְרִים: יוֹם רִאשׁוֹן מַדְלִיק שְׁמֹנָה, מִכָּאן וְאֵילָךְ פּוֹחֵת וְהוֹלֵךְ. וּבֵית הִלֵּל אוֹמְרִים: יוֹם רִאשׁוֹן מַדְלִיק אַחַת, מִכָּאן וְאֵילָךְ מוֹסִיף וְהוֹלֵךְ. אָמַר עוּלָּא: פְּלִיגִי בַּהּ תְּרֵי אָמוֹרָאֵי בְּמַעְרְבָא, רַבִּי יוֹסֵי בַּר אָבִין וְרַבִּי יוֹסֵי בַּר זְבִידָא. חַד אָמַר טַעְמָא דְּבֵית שַׁמַּאי כְּנֶגֶד יָמִים הַנִּכְנָסִין, וְטַעְמָא דְּבֵית הִלֵּל כְּנֶגֶד יָמִים הַיּוֹצְאִין. וְחַד אָמַר טַעְמָא דְּבֵית שַׁמַּאי כְּנֶגֶד פָּרֵי הַחַג, וְטַעְמָא דְּבֵית הִלֵּל דְּמַעֲלִין בַּקֹּדֶשׁ וְאֵין מוֹרִידִין

The Sages taught: The mitzva of Chanukah is each day to have a light kindled by one person per household. And the meticulous kindle a light for each and every one in the household. As for the super-meticulous, Beis Shammai says: On the first day one kindles eight lights and, from there on, gradually decreases. And Beis Hillel says: On the first day one kindles one light, and from there on, gradually increases. Ulla said: There were two rabbis in the West who disagreed with regard to this dispute, Rabbi Yossi bar Avin and Rabbi Yossi bar Zevida. One said that the reason for Beis Shammai’s opinion is that the number of lights corresponds to the days yet-to-come. The reason for Beis Hillel’s opinion is that the number of lights corresponds to the outgoing days. And one said that the reason for Beis Shammai’s opinion is that the number of lights corresponds to the bulls of Sukkot (which decreased with each passing day of the festival). The reason for Beis Hillel’s opinion is: One ascends in matters of sanctity and one does not descend.

Based on the gradually disappearing oil, the Pnei Yehoshua suggests the logic of Beis Shammai’s position over Beis Hillel’s.  In the Holy Temple, on day 1, the Menorah contained eight micro-units of oil.  By the next day one eighth was depleted and seven micro-units remained.  And so on, until the eighth day when only one micro-unit remained.  Therefore, the logical way to remember the miracle is to light eight on the first night and one on the eighth night.

So why don’t we follow Beis Shammai’s approach?  We don’t do because it would be hard to maintain our religious fervour in such a scenario.  Picture, for a moment, how the original Chanukah miracle worked according to this understanding.  On day one, everyone would have been incredibly excited about the miracle.  But then on day 2, they would have said to themselves, ‘Well we see what’s happening here.  Only one eighth has depleted.  So we’ve got another seven days of miracles ahead of us.’  And so the novelty would have worn off by day 2 or 3.  If we were to light according to the diminishing oil theory pattern, we too would lose our interest and enthusiasm pretty quickly.

Therefore, others suggest that the miracle of the oil on day 1 was that none of it disappeared!  When the priests returned at the end of the day, each cup of the Menorah was still completely full of oil, despite having burned all day.  Thus, a miracle occurred on each of the eight days, and we therefore celebrate for eight days.  Consequently, according to the view of Beis Hillel, each day we have one more day’s miracle to celebrate and we must increase our number of lights each night of Chanukah.

But while the miracle of the oil’s constancy would have been incredible to witness, you can imagine that the underlying tension still remained in the hearts and minds of the Jews at the time of the Chanukah story.  Okay, so it’s lasted for today.  But who knows what tomorrow will bring?   Tomorrow, all our resources may be depleted, which may signify that we will be overpowered by our enemies.

That’s why Beis Shammai teaches that the number of lights should corresponds to the sacrifices of Sukkot.  The two festivals of eight days are connected in many ways, including the juxtaposition of the mitzvot of Sukkot and the Menorah in the Torah.  On Sukkot, we would offer seventy sacrifices corresponding to the seventy nations of the world.  But with each ensuing day of the festival, the sacrifices would diminish in number.  The Rokeach explains that Beis Shammai wants to demonstrate that the power of the gentile nations to subjugate us – as they were prior to the Chanukah miracle – slowly declines.  We mark each day of Chanukah with a diminishing number of candles, symbolizing their waning strength.  That should give us comfort and hope for the future.

Beis Hillel doesn’t disagree with Beis Shammai’s thesis.  However, in their opinion, it’s important to stay positive.  While it’s true that the nations’ power over us is declining, let’s focus instead on our increasing strength.  And so they insist we should increase the number of lights to demonstrate how much stronger we feel with each passing day.

We’re all familiar with the scene on the first night of Chanukah.  Everyone is excited.  It’s the festival of lights.  We run to prepare the lights ahead of time and we all gather around the menorah and sing the long version of Haneros Halalu and every verse of Maoz Tzur (even the new one that didn’t appear in the Singers Prayer-book).  By the second night, we’re lighting a little later, once we’ve managed to get everyone away from their screens and homework.  By the third night, an appointment has run late at work and the family is lighting after dinner.  And who knows what’s happening by nights seven and eight?!

Chanukah challenges each of us to tap into our increasing strength and make each night feel miraculous.  Every increasing candle is a symbol of greater spiritual power that Heaven has bestowed upon us.  We must not neglect the opportunity to tap into it.  It’s tempting to feel the slowing momentum around us.  But that’s the waning power of the forces of subjugation and assimilation you’re feeling.  The power of holiness is increasing.  Chanukah serves as a reminder that as long as we are continually growing in our commitment to Heaven, no external force will be able to stop us!

We’re currently in dark days.  Each passing day the monotony of isolation can start to wear away at even the most upbeat, positive people.  But when we allow ourselves to get weaker in our passion for Yiddishkeit and life, we give permission to the forces of darkness to grow stronger.  The more spiritual light we bring into our lives, the more we banish the darkness.

The light is just around the corner.  In the meantime, every mitzvah you do, every new religious observance you engage in, every positive thought you share, dispels a little darkness.  May you merit to be a darkness-buster!