The Hanukah Candles and Gradual Growth
The Gemara in Masechet Shabbat (21b) outlines the three levels of the Misva of lighting Hanukah candles. The basic obligation, the Gemara teaches, requires every household to light just one candle each night of Hanukah. The next level – the level of "Mehadrin" – is to light one candle for each member of the household, each night of Hanukah. The highest level – the "Mehadrin Min Ha’mehadrin" – is, according to the accepted opinion, to light one candle the first night, two the second night, and then one additional candle on each subsequent night. Of course, we all observe the Misva on the highest level, the level of "Mehadrin Min Ha’mehadrin."
Why did the Sages institute three different levels of this Misva, something which was not instituted for any other Misva?
Rav Pinchas Friedman (contemporary) explained that three levels of observing this Misva can be understood in light of the precise nature of the threat posed by the Greeks.
The Hebrew word "Yavan" ("Greece") is spelled with three letters – Yod, Vav, Nun. These three letters are all a straight line, each one longer than the preceding one. The Yod is a small line; the Vav extends lower than the Yod; and the Nun extends even lower. Rav Friedman explains that the Greeks’ strategy was to pull the Jews down slowly, one step at a time. This is, indeed, the only the way the Yeser Ha’ra – our evil inclination – can lead us to betray Hashem. The Gemara in Masechet Shabbat (105b) teaches that the Yeser Ha’ra works by first persuading a person to commit a minor offense, then persuading him to commit a more grievous offense, and then persuading him to abandon observance entirely. It’s a gradual process.
Elsewhere, in Masechet Sukka (52b), the Gemara expresses this idea by teaching that the Yeser Ha’ra is first called a "Holech" ("passerby"), then an Ore’ah ("guest"), and finally, an "Ish" (which Rashi explains to mean a permanent resident). The process of decline unfolds in these three stages – with an occasional misstep, which is then followed by more frequent violations, which then becomes permanent abandonment.
This was the strategy of "Yavan" – to begin with the "Yod," with leading the Jews to relatively minor infractions, and then gradually proceeding to the "Vav," and then, finally, to the "Nun," pulling them all the way down, Heaven forbid.
On this basis, Rav Friedman explains, we can understand the three levels of the Hanukah candle lighting. We are to learn from the method of the Yeser Ha’ra. Just as the Yeser Ha’ra tries to defeat us incrementally, in stages, similarly, our process of spiritual growth is to proceed gradually, one step at a time. If we try to grow rapidly, and to leap directly to the greatest heights of piety, we are bound to fail. We might suggest an analogy to extreme weight-loss programs, which are often effective for losing weight in the short-term, but their effects are eventually reversed, as the individual is incapable of permanently following such an extreme diet. Likewise, people who undertake extreme religious measures, trying to instantly transform themselves into great Sadikim, are all but guaranteed to fail. Religious growth must be slow, steady and incremental. And so to celebrate our triumph over the Greeks, who tried to pull us down one step at a time, the Rabbis instituted the three-tiered obligation of the Hanukah candles, which represents the notion of incremental growth. We must first begin with the observance of our basic obligations, and then gradually proceed to the higher level of "Mehadrin," and then to the lofty standard of "Mehadrin Min Ha’mehadrin."
This is also the message of the custom of "Mosif Ve’holech," of adding one candle each night of Hanukah. We express the notion that when it comes to spiritual growth, we need to follow the system of "Mosif Ve’holech," of growing one step each day, without ever trying to jump straight to the top.
May Hashem help us all to continually be "Mosif Ve’holech," to increase our light of sanctity gradually, one day at a time, throughout our entire lives, Amen.