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‘It’s what you do that defines you’. You might source that quote to a Hollywood figure with tall, bat-like ears, but it’s really Judaism 101.

Before we expound, I’d like to take you back nearly 900 years to medieval Egypt. Walking through the dusty streets of Fostat (old Cairo), you would encounter many different smells, music and people. You would also encounter members of the Egyptian Jewish community, whose chief rabbi served as the personal physician to the Sultan, Saladin.

The rabbi’s name was Moshe Ben Maimon, originally from Cordova, and he is a towering figure in Jewish history. Known as the ‘Rambam’ (the Hebrew acronym for his name), or as ‘Maimonides’, he pioneered what we know today as Jewish law, codifying the immense body of the Talmud into a vast, organized legal code.

Many difficult, multi-tiered Talmudic debates are streamlined and simplified in Maimonides’ work.

I’d like to focus on one such Talmudic discussion, which describes three building blocks of moral character. The Talmud (in Tractate Yevamot 79a) writes that one must be humble, merciful and kind hearted in order to live a moral, Jewish life.

Maimonides quotes this anecdote (in Hilchot Isurei Biah 19.17), but makes an interesting edit. He writes that if one has only one of these characteristics (not all three as the Talmud had written) one is all set for a life of moral, Jewish values.

Why the change? After all, aren’t all three necessary?

The reason for Maimonides' small - but very insightful - edit lies in the star of the current holiday of Chanukah: The Menorah.

The Menorah is lit at first with only one candle, but slowly expands to a beautiful, eight-candle row of light. The Menorah teaches us that there's nothing wrong with starting small - as a matter of fact it's the best way to start. For those first 'small' good deeds are the roots for many more. Light just one, little candle says the Menorah, and before you know it you'll have many more.

Now, back to Egypt and Maimonides. Did Maimonides not think it necessary to be humble, merciful and kind hearted? Of course he did. Then why did he write that only one of those good character traits are necessary, unlike the Talmud the necessitates all three?

Because in doing so he gives us the key as to how to achieve all three: Learn from the warm glow of the Menorah, says Maimonides. Start with one candle. Start with even one, singular good character trait, or good deed. Before you know it, you'll have many more good character traits, and will have done many more good deeds. Maimonides is sure that if we start with one, it won't be the last.

So, what counts most? What truly defines us? What we do.

Yes, feelings are very important, and excitement is the best motivator. But ‘it’s what we do that defines us’. Start with one, small candle. One Mitzvah, one small good deed. You’ll soon be defined as a beautiful, multi-candle, shining Menorah.

Rabbi Avrohom