27 September 2010 - 19 Tishri 5771 - י"ט תשרי ה' אלפים תשע"א
Man of Light – its deeper meaning Print E-mail
The verse "The mitzvah is a lamp (or: flame) and the Torah, light (Proverbs 6:23) distinguishes between Torah and Mitzvah.

This light was too strong for man, and the Sages tell us (Babylonian Talmud, Hagigah 12a) that God hid the light and concealed it for the righteous in the end of days.


The Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, asks: where did God hide this light? And he answers: “In the Torah.” Thus, whoever perceives the essence of the Torah perceives the total light of the Infinite.

This is the basic difference between the Torah and the mitzvah: the Torah reflects the Infinite light, whereas the mitzvah sheds light on a specific object in a specific situation.

As such, the mitzvah has an advantage over the Torah: while the Torah, however beautiful, is distant, the mitzvah is close to us, it is a lamp that one can hold and move. Indeed, in another verse the soul is compared to a lamp which helps us see details better: The soul of man is the lamp of God, revealing all his inmost parts (Proverbs 20:27).

The flame differs from light in yet another way: a flame is not only light but also fire – or, in other words, heat and energy. While the light enables us to see, fire transforms. God is called the “consuming fire” (Deuteronomy 9:3), whereas the fire of the mitzvah is a small flame – but still, it is connected to the consuming fire of God. Like fire, the mitzvah acts upon things.

This is the function of the mitzvah: to change the world by illuminating it.

Furthermore, a lamp is made up of several parts: the utensil, the oil, the wick and the flame. The utensil that holds these various parts together, unites them and enables them to work, stands for the body. The wick is crucial because it transforms the oil into flame.

If we say that the wick stands for the soul and the oil for our material existence, then the true function of the soul is to connect the oil and the flame.

The soul here, then, is not a pure, transcendent essence, but rather the soul as it is incarnated in the individual. The fuel of the soul is the oil from Above, the mitzvah.

Oil is a storehouse of energy that must be released to produce fire. Burning oil to obtain a flame initiates the process that transforms the material into the immaterial.

In a famous work of Kabbalistic commentary, the Sefer Hassidim, each of the 613 commandments corresponds to one of the 613 parts of the human body.

According to this our lives consist of lighting one light here, one light there, and all these lights together make up a human being. Man, then, is an array of lights, a brace or stand, so to speak, for the 613 lights, and his role is to make the light that is concealed within the oil emerge.

In Jewish tradition there are two meanings to the word adam, man: the first comes from the word adamah, earth, defining his physical existence; according to this meaning, the three letters of the Hebrew word adam – aleph, dalet, mem – stand for efer (ash), dam (blood) and marah (bile).

The second meaning sees the word adam as derived from the phrase edame la’elyon – “I resemble the Supernal One,” man in God’s image (Genesis 1:27).

The word “image” can be taken almost literally. According to the laws of optics, when a broad ray of light goes through a small aperture, it preserves the shape of its luminous source.

Similarly, the Divine light that travels through the universe is reflected through this tiny slit called “man” – while remaining Divine Light, albeit on a human scale. The function of a mitzvah is to “reflect” God in the physical reality of this world and restitute the image Above.

But the mitzvah, being Divine, reveals not only God’s will, but also God Himself. Mitzvot are sometimes called the “emissaries of God.”

According to Jewish law, an emissary is, in a certain sense, identical with the sender. In this sense, too, the mitzvah represents Divine Presence in the world. This Presence is concealed in the oil, and it is up to man to penetrate this physical envelope and release the light “imprisoned” therein. Fire consumes with the purpose of transforming, and thus elevates whatever it consumes.

To elevate things means to bring them back to their true nature and reinstate their true identity.

By fulfilling a mitzvah, by transforming oil into light, we accomplish for the world something similar to the work of a psychoanalyst: we take a person or an object and tell them: “You have forgotten who you are and where you come from.”

Our true vocation as men is to free the world of its complexes by creating change, and to upset the laws of a static world by transforming things through the fire of the mitzvah.

Chanukah is, first and foremost, a religious war in which everything revolves around light and darkness. The little cruse of holy oil that was used for rekindling the Temple lamp was hidden and very hard to find.

The challenge our ancestors faced was to reveal the light. We relive this need and this lesson every year on Chanukah by lighting an additional light on each of the eight evenings of the holiday.

Supplied by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz He is the director of the Steinsaltz educational network and the Mekor Haim Schools in Israel and in the Former Soviet Union.

(Issue Dec 09/Jan 10)

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