How to turn a lamp into a flame
The Long Pole
More lighting instructions, or how to bear a light loftier
than your own
INSIGHTS: A Humbling Thought
One more lighting instruction, or whose light is it anyway?
Our sages tell us that the Holy Temple in Jerusalem-and its
forerunner, the Sanctuary built by Moses in the Sinai Desert-was
a physical, three-dimensional model of the spiritual architecture
of the soul. The Temple consisted of numerous domains, chambers
and "vessels"; each of these corresponding to another
element of the inner life of man and illustrating that element's
function and purpose.
The menorah, the seven-branched golden candelabra which was
kindled each afternoon in the Holy Temple, represents man's
potential to "kindle lamps": to generate sources
of illumination within his own self, in his fellow man, and
in the material resources at his disposal.
The Torah devotes a number of detailed chapters to describing
the menorah's construction and the various laws governing
its lighting. Each of these details has its corresponding
"law" and lesson in the menorah's spiritual significance.
By way of example, let us examine a phrase in one of the commentaries
on one of these chapters:
The eighth chapter of Numbers opens with G-d's instruction
to Aaron: "When you raise the lamps, they should shed
their light towards the face of the menorah." In his
commentary on this verse, Rashi
dwells on the Torah's use of the phrase behaalotecha,
"when you raise." Why does the Torah employ this
obscure synonym for "kindle"? Rashi explains that
the Torah wishes to refer to the flame's nature to gravitate
upward and rise, and also to instruct the kohen (priest) who
lights the menorah's lamps to hold the fire to the wick until
"the flame rises on its own.''
These three words-shalhevet olah me'eileha ("the
flame rises on its own")-contain some of the basic lessons
to be derived from the menorah.
The menorah's lights are usually referred to as its neirot,
"lamps." Here, Rashi uses the word shalhevet,
"flame." While the term neirot can apply
to both lit and unlit lamps, shalhevet means a "live,"
light-producing flame. Indeed, for many hours of each day,
the menorah's lamps were without flames.
Each morning, the lamps were cleaned, filled with the purest
olive oil, and given new wicks. In this state they stood most
of the day, awaiting the flame-bearing kohen who came to kindle
them in mid-afternoon.
In those interim hours, the lamp was in its most complete
and perfect state: its gold pristine, its wick fresh, and
filled to capacity with the finest oil. Nothing of substance
was lacking. Indeed, lighting it only sullied its luster,
charred its wick and used up its fuel. But in its unlit state,
the lamp was dark, its luminary potential locked within. It
might have been perfect in itself, but it was of no benefit
to that which lay outside of itself.
Man, too, can be a ner without a shalhevet,
a lamp without a flame. He might achieve a personal perfection
- an ornate vessel, fine-tuned talents and abundant potentials.
But the purpose of life is to be a blazing lamp - to ignite
one's talents and potentials so that they illuminate one's
This is the first lesson of the menorah: that the goal of
personal perfection alone will never suffice to satisfy the
striving of our soul. Intrinsic to our nature is the quest
to be a "flame"-an illumination to our surroundings.
"The spirit of man gravitates upward."
While the space we inhabit possesses three dimensions and
six directions, our deepest strivings tend upward. When children
compete over who is "bigger," it is their vertical
height which they compare. When men and women of all ages
speak of their desire for self-betterment, they do so in terms
of "climbing the ladder," "reaching upward,"
and "raising" themselves to "new heights."
Thus King Solomon describes the human soul as a "lamp
of G-d." Of the Four Elements (fire, water, air and earth), only fire
gravitates upward. Like a flame forever straining at its tether,
the human soul is forever pulling upwards, straining at the
wick (i.e., the physical body) which binds it aground.
What is the deeper significance of this "vertical"
striving? Certain achievements can be described in terms of
growth "length" and "breadth." We might
expend much effort and toil to extending and broadening our
accomplishments - but all on the same plane, all along the
lines which define our present reality. The spirit of man,
however, thirsts for more. The "lamp of G-d" within
us does not allow us to reconcile ourselves to our present
reality, whether it is a reality bounded by habit and convention,
or even by the most basic dictates of our nature. Intrinsic
to the human condition is the quest for transcendence, the
striving to "break the mold" in which we are formed
and remake ourselves as something more-something "higher"
than what we are.
This is the second lesson of the menorah: that life is not
only a "flame" but also a flame that "rises."
That no matter how extensive our gains in the space we have
carved for ourselves in this world may be, we must constantly
search for new areas of achievement. Personal perfection is
not enough; nor is leadership as a "luminary" in
any defined field. Our inner essence as a "lamp of G-d"
demands that we perpetually reinvent ourselves, that we constantly
strive to break free of our present plane of existence to
reach for something "higher."
"On Its Own"
A lamp cannot ignite itself: it requires a fire, an external
source of energy to set it aglow. But the objective is that
its flame should "rise on its own"-that it be transformed
into an independent source of light.
This is the third lesson of the menorah: that when we act
as "lamplighters" - whether in the endeavor to ignite
our own potentials, to ignite the "lamp" in our
fellow man, or to create luminaries out of the materials of
our environment-the objective must be to generate a flame
which "rises on its own."
In terms of our effort toward self-improvement, this means
not to suffice with "resolutions" and behavior changes
which must be constantly imposed by force of will. Rather,
one should strive for a transformation of one's nature and
character, so that the new behavior becomes the natural, instinctive
way to act.
In teaching and influencing one's fellow, the objective should
be to establish him or her as a self-sufficient luminary in
his own right: to assist in developing his talents and abilities
so that his lamp independently glows and, in turn, kindles
the potential in others.
The same is true concerning our effect on the physical world.
When we utilize the materials and resources of our world toward
good and G-dly ends, we imbue them with sanctity and G-dliness. Here, too, a physical object can be made not only into a passive
vessel of light, but into a "lamp" that is an independent
source of illumination.
For example, instead of just talking to our children about
charity or involving them in our own charitable activities,
we can help them fashion a pushkah (charity box) and
install it in their room. Each time the child places a coin
in the box, it is assisting him and training him in an act
of charity. A piece of wood or plastic has thus been formed
into a "luminary."
Furthermore, even when it is not actually being used to perform
a charitable deed, the charity box continues to act as a "lamp"
which illuminates its surroundings. As a permanent fixture
in his room, it acts as a constant reminder to the child of
his responsibility towards others. A physical object has become
"a flame which rises on its own," an independent
source of guidance and enlightenment.
Based on an address by the Rebbe, Shabbat Behaalotecha
5751 (June 1, 1991)
And G-d spoke to Moses, saying: "Speak to Aaron and
say to him: 'When you raise the lamps...' "
Be of the disciples of Aaron: A lover of peace, a pursuer
of peace, one who loves his fellow human beings and brings
them close to Torah
Ethics of the Fathers 1:11
The appearance of Moses' older brother, Aaron, in both these
citations is not coincidental: the fact that Aaron is cited
as the prototype for man's responsibility for the spiritual
elevation of his fellows is a reflection and outgrowth of
his role as the kindler of the menorah in the Holy Temple.
Many of the Torah's commandments are specific to certain
locations and to certain periods in our history; the lighting
of the menorah, for example, can be performed only in the
Holy Temple. But every mitzvah also has a "spiritual"
dimension-a timeless and universal application within our
internal self. One of the spiritual applications of the mitzvah
to kindle the menorah's lamps is the imperative to kindle
"The lamp of G-d, the soul of man"- to ignite a fellow human being's potential to
radiate light and warmth to his or her surroundings.
A Legal Paradox
Each of the many laws governing the menorah's physical lighting
in the Holy Temple has its counterpart in the spiritual significance
of the menorah. In fact, there are laws that can be truly
understood only in light of their inner-personal import. A
case in point are the following three rules:
a) Although the commandment to light the menorah was directed
to Aaron, the most exalted and holiest of the kohanim, every
Jew, including one who is not a kohen, is qualified to perform
b) On the other hand, the task of preparing the lamps (cleaning
them, filling them with oil, and inserting their wicks) is
entrusted solely to those whom G-d elected to serve Him in
the Temple: only a kohen is qualified to ready the lamps for
c) From its outermost courtyard to its innermost chamber,
the Holy Temple consisted of eight domains, each imbued with
a greater degree of sanctity. The designated place of the
menorah was the heichal, which was second only in this
hierarchy of holiness to the Temple's innermost chamber, the
"Holy of Holies." Only kohanim were allowed to enter
Laws (a) and (c) result in a legal paradox: Since a non-kohen
could not enter the heichal, the only way for an ordinary
Israelite to light the menorah was if he did so with the aid
of long pole, or if the menorah was carried out to him by
a kohen and then replaced in the heichal. This raises
an obvious question: if the Torah intended that every Jew
should be able to perform the mitzvah of lighting the menorah,
why didn't it place the menorah in a part of the Temple to
which every Jew has access? And if, on the other hand, the
holiness of the menorah is such that it requires the more
sacred environment of the heichal, why did the Torah
permit someone who cannot obtain this standard of holiness
to light it?
Law (b) is likewise puzzling: should not the standard for
lighting the menorah be equal to, if not greater than, that
of its preparation? If any Jew can light the menorah, why
is only a kohen qualified to prepare it for lighting?
"The kohanim of the tribe of Levi," G-d instructed
Moses, "and the entire tribe of Levi, shall have no share and lot
[in the Land] with the people of Israel.... G-d is their lot." Excluded from all earthly cares, responsibilities and privileges,
the kohen's life is utterly devoted to "serve G-d, and
teach His law to the community."
But there is also a broader definition to the status of kohen.
"Not only the tribe of Levi," writes Maimonides,
"but any man of all the inhabitants of earth whose spirit
has moved him ... to stand before G-d, to serve Him, to worship
Him, to know G-d and walk justly ... and he cast from his
neck the yoke of the many calculations that men seek-such
an individual becomes sanctified, a holy of holies, and G-d
shall be his portion and his lot."
Therein lies the deeper significance of the law that the
menorah can be lit also by an "ordinary" Israelite.
One might think that the role of igniting souls had best be
left to the "spiritual leader," to one whose entire
life is devoted to G-dly pursuits. What can the ordinary person,
himself burdened by the mundanities of life, offer the spiritually
Says the Torah: Every soul is a "lamp of G-d,"
regardless of the degree of spirituality in his life. Every
individual has the capacity to generate light and to ignite
a fellow lamp. And if G-d has given you license and ability
for the task, it is your sacred duty to do so. Never mind
that the bulk of your life is taken up with the demands of
a material existence; you too can, and must, serve as a teacher
and lamplighter to your fellows.
However, one might take this to the other extreme and argue:
If G-d instructs that I, too, am qualified to light the menorah,
then I am free to do so on my terms-to interpret the Torah
as I understand it and to spread its light in the manner that
I see fit. Says the Torah: only the kohanim, those chosen
by G-d as the nation's spiritual leaders, are qualified to
prepare a menorah for lighting. Only they can decide the content
of the message and the means of its dissemination. In all
matters of Torah law and teaching, "You shall come to
the kohanim, the Levites, to the judge that shall be in those
times ... and you shall do as they instruct you."
The place of the menorah is in the heichal; and while
your natural place might be a less sacred environment, your
license to light the menorah it is not a license to compromise
its holiness. In the above-cited words of Hillel, a disciple
of Aaron is one who "brings his fellow human beings close
to the Torah"-not, G-d forbid, the other way around;
one's fellow must be brought close to the Torah, but the Torah
must never be brought down to the level of those one seeks
On the other hand, the fact that the menorah's standards
are loftier than your own does not absolve you from your duty
as a lamplighter. Your light must be employed to illuminate
others, even if it means reaching into the heichal
with a "long pole" - extending your reach to areas
that your ordinary self cannot aspire to. Even if it means
that the menorah must be "carried out" to you by
a kohen to enable you to realize your potential as a luminary
and an illuminator.
In other words, you must grapple with the distance between
the lowliness of your own spiritual state and the loftiness
of the ideals you are duty bound to teach. You must do so
not by compromising their loftiness, nor by escaping your
duty, but by finding ways to bridge that distance and become
a bearer of light even if it is a light that is loftier than
Based on the Rebbe's talks on Shavuot 5717 (1957) and on
When the kohen entered the chamber where the menorah stood
in the Holy Temple to kindle its lamps each afternoon, he
found them fully prepared for lighting: earlier in the day,
the lamps had been cleaned and filled with oil, and fresh
wicks had been inserted. All he had to do was bring near the
flame he carried, so that by its mere proximity to the waiting
lamp it would ignite the latent energy and luminary potential
which the lamp already held.
Therein lies an important lesson to the spiritual "lamplighter":
do not think that you are achieving anything that your fellow
could not, in truth, achieve on his own; do not think that
you are giving him something he does not already possess.
The soul of your fellow is a ready lamp, filled with the purest
oil and equipped with all that is required to convert its
fuel into a blazing flame. It only lacks the proximity of
another lamp to ignite it. If your own soul is alight, its
contact with another's soul will awaken its luminous potential,
so that it may illuminate its surroundings and ignite other
souls, in turn.
Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber
 See BeChayei on Exodus 25:9; Shaloh, Parshat Terumah
(p. 324b); Torat HaOlah by Rabbi Moshe Isserlis (the Rama).
 Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, whose work is universally
accepted as the most fundamental of all Torah commentaries.
 With the exception of the Ner HaMaaravi ("Western
Lamp") which burned round the clock.
 See The Lamp, WIR vol. X, no. 13.
 See The First Creation , WIR vol. X, no.
 Sefer HaSichot 5751, vol. II, p. 600 ff.
 Mishneh Torah, Laws of Entering the Holy Temple,
 Talmud, Keilim 1:8-9.
 The entire tribe of Levi was elected to serve
G-d in the Holy Temple. Among the Levites themselves, the
kohanim were entrusted with the most sacred aspects of the
Temple service, while the other Levites serve as the kohanim's
 Mishneh Torah, Laws of Shemittah and Yovel 13:12.
Cf. Deuteronomy 33:10.
 Mishneh Torah, ibid., 13:13.
 Deuteronomy 17:9-10.
 Likkutei Sichot, vol. II, pp. 314-318; Sefer HaSichot
5750, pp. 508-509, et al.