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Rush And Return: The Anatomy Of A Flame

From The Chassidic Masters

Though it occupies only three verses in the beginning of parashah, the mitzvah of lighting the Menorah gives the whole of Beha‘alosecha (“When you raise light”) its name. The lamps of the Menorah are seen as representing the souls of Israel, and the various laws governing the Menorah’s construction and the lighting of its lamps are explained by the Chassidic masters as instructive of the nature and structure of the People of Israel, the manner in which the potential of the soul of man is to be ignited, the duties of the “lamplighter,” and numerous other insights into the spiritual art of lamplighting.

The foundation of the Menorah–soul equation is Shlomo haMelech’s declaration in Mishlei: “A lamp of G‑d, the soul of man.” The founder of Chabad Chassidism, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, delves into this metaphor, finding in the components of the physical lamp a detailed anatomy of the human soul. The following is based on Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s analysis and subsequent discourses penned by the later Rebbes of Chabad.

The Flame:
Antipodal Strivings

The flame surges upwards, as if to tear free from the wick and lose itself in the great expanses of energy that gird the heavens. But even as it strains heavenward, it is already pulling back, tightening its grip on the wick and drinking thirstily of the oil in the lamp—oil that sustains its continued existence as an individual flame. And it is this tension of conflicting energies, this vacillation from being to dissolution and back again, that produces light.

The soul, too, yearns for transcendence, yearns to tear free of the entanglements of material life and achieve a self-nullifying reunion with its Creator and Source. At the same time, however, it is also driven by a will to be—a will to live a physical life and make its mark upon a physical world. In the “lamp of G‑d” that is man, these polar drives converge in a flame that illuminates its surroundings with a G‑dly light.

The Ingredients

How is a flame generated and sustained? By means of a lamp, consisting of oil, a wick, and a vessel containing them so that the oil is fed through the wick to a burning flame.

Oil and wick are both combustible substances. But neither could produce light on its own with the efficiency and stability of the lamp. The wick, if ignited, would flare briefly and die, utterly consumed. As for the oil, one would find it extremely difficult to ignite at all. But when wick and oil are brought together in the lamp, they produce a controlled and steady light.

The soul of man is a lamp of G‑d whose purpose in life is to illuminate the world with Divine light. G‑d provided us with the “fuel” that generates His light—the Torah and its mitzvos, which embody His wisdom and will and convey His luminous truth.

The Divine oil requires a “wick”—a physical body—to channel its substance and convert it into an illuminating flame. The Torah is the Divine wisdom; but for Divine wisdom to be manifest in our world, there must be physical minds that study it and comprehend it, physical mouths that debate it and teach it, and physical media that publish it and disseminate it. The mitzvos are the Divine will; but for the Divine will to be manifest in our world, there must be physical hands that actualize it and physical materials (animal hide for tefillin, wool for tzitzis, money for charity) with which it is actualized.

And just as the Divine oil cannot produce light without a material wick, neither can a wick without oil. A life without Torah and mitzvos, however aflame with the desire to come close to G‑d, is incapable of sustaining its flame. It might generate flashes of ecstatic spiritual experience, but, lacking oil of genuine Divine substance, these quickly die out and fail to introduce any enduring light into the world.

To realize its role as a “lamp of G‑d,” a human life must be a lamp that combines a physical existence (the “wick”) with the Divine ideas and deeds of Torah (the “oil”). When the wick is saturated with oil and feeds its spiritual yearnings with a steady supply of the same, the resultant flame is both luminous and sustainable, preserving the existence and productivity of the wick and illuminating the corner of the world in which it has been placed.

Hues Of Light

The flame itself is a multicolored affair, alluding to the many levels on which man relates to the Creator through his observance of the mitzvos. Generally speaking, there is the lower and darker area of the flame which adjoins the wick, and its upper and brighter part.

The darker segment of the flame represents those aspects of a person’s service of G‑d which are colored by their association with the physicality of the “wick”—that is, mitzvos which are motivated by self-interest. The higher and purer part of the flame represents a person’s moments of self-transcendence, deeds which a person does—as Rambam writes—“not for any reason in the world: not out of fear of evil or out of a desire to obtain the good; rather, he does the truth because it is true.”

Both these aspects of a person’s life are reflected in his relationship with G‑d. The mitzvos come not only to bind his altruistic “G‑dly soul” to the Al-mighty, but also to involve his ego-dominated “animal soul” in the fulfillment of the Divine will. This is achieved when a person understands that he should “love the L-rd your G‑d . . . for He is your life” (Devarim 30:20). By recognizing that G‑d is the source and sustainer of his very being, the very same ego which earlier craved the most material of pleasures is now drawn to attach itself to the Al-mighty, out of the realization that there is no possible greater fulfillment of self.

Rush And Return

Thus the “wick” is both prison and liberator for the flame, both tether and lifeline. It holds the soul in its distinctiveness from the Divine whole, in its apartness from its Creator. And yet it is this distinctiveness and apartness, this incarnation in a physical life, which allows us to connect to G‑d in the deepest and most meaningful way—by fulfilling His will.

So when Divine command, physical body, and human life come together as oil, wick, and lamp, the result is a flame: a relationship with G‑d that is characterized by two conflicting drives, by a yearning to come close coupled with a commitment to draw back. The materiality of life evokes in the soul a desire to tear free of it and fuse with the Divine. But the closer the soul is drawn to G‑d, all the more does it recognize that it can fulfill His will only as a distinct and physical being. So while the corporeality of the wick triggers the flame’s upward surge, the Divine will implicit in the oil sustains its commitment to existence and life.

Every mitzvah is oil for the soul: with every act that constitutes a fulfillment of the Divine will, our lives are rendered into burning lamps, alight with flames that vacillate from heaven to earth and back again and illuminate the world in the process.

Therein lies the specialty of the mitzvah of kindling the lamps of the Menorah in the Holy Temple. Every mitzvah generates light—whether it involves giving a coin to charity, binding tefillin on our arms and heads, or eating matzah on Passover. But this mitzvah (and the related mitzvos of kindling the Shabbos and Chanukah lights) not only transform us into metaphorical lamps, but also assume the actual form of a physical lamp—physical oil, a physical wick, and a physical flame that produces light. v

Based on the writings of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745–1812), Rabbi DovBer of Lubavitch (1773–1827), and the Lubavitcher Rebbe; adaptation by Yanki Tauber. Reprinted with permission from Find Torah articles for the entire family at


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Posted by on June 4, 2014. Filed under In This Week's Edition. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.