Few sights are as warming to the soul as the sight of a burning flame. Though a physical phenomenon, the flame — luminous, pure, ethereal — is everything the physical is not; hence its appeal to man, a spiritual being ensnared in a material world.

But the flame is more than a symbol of spirituality. The flame is our own mirror, in which are reflected the strivings of our deepest self. In the words of the author of Proverbs, "The soul of man is a lamp of G‑d."

The flame is our own mirror, in which are reflected the strivings of our deepest self

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, the flame 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.

We, too, yearn for transcendence, yearn to tear free of the entanglements of material life and achieve a self-nullifying reunion with our Creator and Source. At the same time, however, we are also driven by a will to be — a will to live a physical life and make our 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

A lamp consists 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 lightthe Torah and its commandments (mitzvot), which embody His wisdom and will and convey His luminous truth.

The divine oil requires a "wick" 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 mitzvot are the divine will; but for the divine will to be manifest in our world, there must be a physical body that actualizes it and physical materials (animal hide for tefillin, wool for tzitzit, money for charity) with which it is actualized.

The soul of man is a lamp of G‑d whose purpose in life is to illuminate the world with divine light

And just as the divine oil cannot produce light without a material wick, neither can a wick without oil. A life without Torah and mitzvot, 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 has been placed.

Hues of Light

The flame itself is a multi-colored affair, alluding to the many levels on which man relates to the Creator through his observance of the mitzvot. 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, mitzvot which are motivated by self-interest. The higher and purer part of the flame represents a persons moments of self-transcendence, deeds which a person does—as Maimonides 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 persons life are reflected in his relationship with G‑d. The mitzvot come not only to bind his altruistic "G‑dly soul" to the Almighty, 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 Lord your G‑d... for He is your life" (Deuteronomy 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 Almighty, out of the realization that there is no greater fulfillment of self possible.

The Pendulum of Life

The "wick" is both prison and liberator for the flame, both tether and lifeline

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 flames upward surge, the divine will implicit in the oil sustains its commitment to existence and life.

Actual Lamps

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.

Every mitzvah generates lightwhether it involves giving a coin to charity, binding tefillin on our arms and heads, or eating matzah on Passover. But certain mitzvot not only transform us into metaphorical lamps, but also assume the actual form of a lamp. A real, physical lamp, with physical oil, a physical wick, and a physical flame that produces physical, tactual light.

Thus we have the mitzvah to kindle the menorah in the Holy Temple and produce a literal representation of the divine light that emanated from there to the entire world. Every Friday evening, the Jewish woman invites the light of Shabbat into her home by kindling the Shabbat candlesanother mitzvah whose function is reflected in its form. And once a year comes Chanukah, the festival of lights. For eight days, a nightly growing number of flames are kindled in the doorways and windows of our homes, so that the light generated by our lives as "lamps of G‑d" should spill outdoors and illuminate the street.

Based on the writings of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), Rabbi DovBer of Lubavitch (1773-1827), and the Lubavitcher Rebbe.