והנה ביאור משל זה שהמשיל אור השכינה לאור הנר

The meaning of this analogy comparing the light of the Shechinah to the light of a candle, “is clear... to every intelligent person,” as the Alter Rebbe will conclude shortly, after a closer examination of its details. Just as it is true of the candle’s flame

שאינו מאיר ונאחז בפתילה בלי שמן

that it does not shed light nor is it retained by the wick, without oil,

By nature, fire strains upward; it will not remain below unless restrained by a wick or wood, for example. But a wick alone is rapidly consumed, and the fire vanishes quickly. Moreover, the burning wick produces a dim and smoky light, for it consists of material insufficiently refined to be completely absorbed by the flame. Oil, on the other hand, is completely transformed into the flame and absorbed by it; burning steadily, it produced a pure and clear light.

This is what is meant by the Alter Rebbe’s statement that without oil “the flame of the candle (a) does not shed light, (b) nor is it retained by the wick.”

Returning now to the point of the analogy:

וכך אין השכינה שורה על גוף האדם שנמשל לפתילה, אלא על ידי מעשים טובים דווקא

similarly, the Shechinah does not rest upon man’s body, which is compared to a wick, except through man’s performing good deeds.

The body can only act as a wick, not as oil. It is a coarse physical being which will not be absorbed within the light of the Shechinah, but will always remain separate from it. The good deeds that man performs provide the oil.

ולא די לו בנשמתו, שהיא חלק אלוה ממעל, להיות היא כשמן לפתילה

It is evident from the Zohar, however, that one’s soul, although a part of G‑d above, is insufficient to serve as oil for the wick.

A question is implied here. Why should the soul, itself divine, and thus certainly suited to being absorbed within the light of the Shechinah, require anything external (such as good deeds) to serve as oil for that light? Surely the soul itself should constitute the oil!

מבואר ומובן לכל משכיל

But the reason for this — the Alter Rebbe now concludes the sentence begun earlier with the words “The meaning of this analogy” — is clear and understandable to every intelligent person.

The Alter Rebbe will now proceed to explain why good deeds can serve as oil for the light of the Shechinah, whereas the divine soul cannot. The explanation in brief:

Man’s soul is not, after all, completely nullified before G‑d and one with Him to the extent that it is capable of becoming absorbed within the G‑dly light. This is true even of the soul of the tzaddik, who serves G‑d with the loftiest forms of love and fear. Indeed, it is the soul’s very love of G‑d that emphasizes its separateness; for love entails two separate entities, the lover and the beloved. Similarly with fear: there is one who fears, and another who is feared.

Only “good deeds” — mitzvot, which (as the Alter Rebbe will explain further on) are completely one with G‑d — can therefore serve as the oil which is absorbed within the flame of the light of the Shechinah that is kindled over man.

In the Alter Rebbe’s words:

כי הנה, נשמת האדם, אפילו הוא צדיק גמור, עובד ה׳ ביראה ואהבה בתענוגים

For the soul of man, even if he be a perfect tzaddik who serves G‑d with fear and “love of delights” i.e., his love consists of delighting in the experience of G‑dliness — a most lofty form of love,

אף על פי כן אינה בטילה במציאות לגמרי ליבטל וליכלל באור ה׳ ממש, להיות לאחדים ומיוחדים ביחוד גמור

is nevertheless not utterly nullified out of existence, so that it might be dissolved into, and absorbed within G‑d’s light, to be merged with it in perfect unity.

רק הוא דבר בפני עצמו, ירא ה׳ ואוהבו

It is, rather, a separate entity, which fears G‑d and loves Him. Since it is not absorbed within G‑dliness as oil is absorbed within a flame, the soul cannot serve as oil for the light of the Shechinah.

מה שאין כן המצות ומעשים טובים, שהן רצונו ית׳

Not so with mitzvot and good deeds, which are G‑d’s Will — each commandment representing G‑d’s desire that a particular act be performed.

ורצונו יתברך הוא מקור החיים לכל העולמות והברואים

Now, G‑d’s Will is the source of life for all the worlds and the creatures — they live only because G‑d so desired.

שיורד אליהם על ידי צמצומים רבים והסתר פנים של רצון העליון ברוך הוא, וירידת המדרגות

The difference between the Divine Will expressed in mitzvot and that same Will as expressed in creation lies in the latter’s descending to them by means of many contractions (tzimtzumim), and by concealment of the “Countenance” i.e., the internal aspect of the Supernal Will, with only the external, superficial, aspect of G‑d’s Will expressing itself in creation, and through a descent from level to level.

עד שיוכלו להתהוות ולהבראות יש מאין ודבר נפרד בפני עצמו, ולא יבטלו במציאות, כנ״ל

All these steps were necessary so that it would be possible for [the worlds and creatures] to come into being and to be created ex nihilo as separate entities, without becoming nullified out of existence, as mentioned above.1 Without the previously enumerated forms of concealment of G‑dliness, all created beings would be so completely nullified before the Divine Will that created them, that they would have no independent identity. Thus the Divine Will expressed in creation can come about only through its seeming contraction, occultation and descent.

מה שאין כן המצות, שהן פנימית רצונו יתברך, ואין שם הסתר פנים כלל

The mitzvot, on the other hand, are the internal aspect of the Divine Will. There the “Countenance” is not hidden at all, for, on the contrary, mitzvot are the underlying purpose (the “inner aspect of will”) of creation in its entirety.

To illustrate by way of example:

One engages in business so that he will realize a profit, and thereby support his family. In all, he wants the business to prosper, wants the profits, and wants to provide for his family. Yet his true, inner will lies only in supporting his family. His desire for profit is merely incidental, “external” to this will, and his desire for business even more so.

So, too, with the Divine Will as expressed in creation and as expressed in the mitzvot. The desire for creation is an external will. It is generated by the inner (i.e., ultimate) desire that Jews observe the mitzvot — obviously an impossibility without a created world.

אין החיות שבהם דבר נפרד בפני עצמו כלל

Because the mitzvot represent G‑d’s true, inner Will, and because in them there is no concealment of this Will (unlike the case in creation), therefore the [G‑dly] life-force within them is by no means a separate entity,

אלא הוא מיוחד ונכלל ברצונו יתברך, והיו לאחדים ממש ביחוד גמור

but is united with and contained within G‑d’s Will, and they (the mitzvot) are truly joined in perfect unity with G‑d’s Will.

It is thus clear why (in the above-mentioned metaphor) the mitzvot can serve as oil for the light of the Shechinah: for they are truly absorbed within and transformed into the light of the Divine Will just as oil is absorbed within a flame. (The Alter Rebbe will arrive at this conclusion, after a preliminary discussion on what the Zohar means when it says that the light of the Shechinah “rests” on man. This exposition now follows:)