ESSAY: Lamps and Lives
A five-foot, 150-pound, seven-branched piece of gold speaks
of the singularity and plurality of life
The Cost of Light
How much do we give up when we give?
The railroad as a metaphor for life
And G-d spoke to Moses, saying: ... When you raise up
the lamps, the seven lamps should give light toward the face
of the menorah... And this is the work of the menorah: it
was of beaten gold, from its base to its flower it was beaten
On three different occasions, G-d instructed Moses on the
making and the kindling of the menorah (candelabrum) in the
Holy Temple. In the 25th chapter of Exodus, a detailed description
of the menorah is given as part of G-ds instructions
on the construction of the Sanctuary. In Leviticus 24, G-d
commands Moses regarding its daily lighting. Finally, we have the above-quoted verses from
Numbers 8, which open the Torah section of Behaalotecha.
The Behaalotecha verses specify two laws of
a) That all of its lamps should be turned toward its center
stem (the face of the menorah),
b) That the menorah should not be made piecemeal and its
parts welded together; rather, the entire candelabrumits
base, its center stem, its six arms and its decorative forms
(22 goblets, eleven globes and nine flowers), standing seventeen
tefachim high (about 60 inches) and weighing a full
kikar (approximately 150 pounds)should be hammered
out of a single block of gold.
Both these laws were already stated in the earlier passages
detailing the menorah. Their repetition here emphasizes their
centrality to the function and significance of menorah.
Origin and Objective
The soul of man is a lamp of G-d. Like the lamp, the function of the soul is to
illuminate its surroundings. The soul, literally a part
of G-d Above,
is placed within a material body and world so that it should
radiate its light to the darkest reaches of the created reality.
The candelabrum in the Holy Temple had seven lamps, corresponding
to the seven primary traits of the human character. Some souls
excel in the trait of chessed (love, benevolence),
others in the attribute of gevurah (self-discipline,
fear of G-d); still others exemplify tiferet (harmony,
compassion), netzach (ambition), hod (humility,
devotion), yesod (communicativity, connectedness) or
malchut (regality, receptiveness). Together we form
a seven-branched menorah, radiating seven qualities of light
which fill the Temple of G-d and spill out to the world beyond
This is the deeper significance of the two laws reiterated
in the Behaalotecha verses. The second law emphasizes
the singular origin of the diverse community of man. The entire
menorah must be hammered out of a single piece of gold, for
all seven types of soul derive from a single source. All are
equally literally a part of G-d Above, in origin
and in essence one.
The first law expresses the common objective of the menorahs
lights. All lamps are turned toward the face of the
menorah. Even after they have branched off into seven
distinct lamps, even after they are burning with seven different
lights, all are directed toward the same place. All are striving
toward the same goal, notwithstanding the differences in the
nature and orientation of their quest.
Two Visions of Man
Two great biblical commentators, Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki,
1040-1105) and Nachmanides (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270),
differ in their characterization of the Behaalotecha
Rashi refers to these verses as Parashat HaMenorah,
i.e., The Menorah Section. Nachmanides, on the
other hand, sees their primary purpose as instructions on
how to light the lamps. In other words, according to Rashi,
the raison detre of these verses is to reiterate
the second lawthat the menorah be hammered worka
law pertaining to the construction and form of the menorah
itself. According to Nachmanides, their main purpose is to
relate the first law, which relates to the manner in which
the menorahs lamps should be lit.
The menorah describes the community of souls as originating
as a singular entity, which then branches off into seven lamps
that are different and distinct yet are all pointed toward
a common goal. This general picture can be viewed from two
perspectives. One can place the emphasis on the common origin,
and see the common focus of the seven lamps as an expression
of their intrinsic singularity. Or, one can emphasize the
fact that this single menorah has produced seven lamps which,
even as they strive toward their common goal, do so each in
its own way, each with its own unique and distinct personality.
This is the underlying significance of the difference between
Rashi and Nachmanides. Rashi sees life as an exercise in oneness.
The diversity of human nature is but a superficial illusion;
you need but scratch its surface to find that were all
basically doing the same thing. This is the message of the
menorah: I have a base and I have flowers; I have seven branches;
but I am of a single piece.
Nachmanides, on the other hand, sees intrinsic worth and
significance in the diversity of human nature. Our differences
are not just means to the common end, but central to lifes
purpose. Yes, we all derive from one place; yes, we are all
striving toward the same goal; but the different ways in which
we travel this course are what make the menorah of life, and
are themselves of enduring luminary value.
Based on an address by the Rebbe, Shabbat Behaalotecha,
5730 (June 20, 1970)
And G-d said to Moses: Gather to Me seventy men of
the elders of Israel... And I shall cause to emanate from
the spirit that is upon you, and place it upon them. And they
shall bear the burden of the people together with you...
Was Moses prophecy perhaps diminished? No. This
is comparable to a burning candle from which many candles
are lit, yet its own light is not diminished. So, too, Moses
lost nothing that was his...
Midrash Rabbah on verse
On the most basic level, this is the difference between physical
and spiritual giving. In physical givingas when one
makes a charitable donation or lends a hand to help a fellowthe
givers resources are depleted by his gift: he now has
less money or energy than before. In spiritual giving, however,
there is no loss. For example, if a person teaches his fellow,
his own knowledge is not diminishedif anything, it is
Upon deeper contemplation, however, it would seem that spiritual
giving, too, carries a price. If the disciple
is of inferior knowledge and mental capability than the teacher,
the time and effort expended in teaching him is invariably
at the expense of the teachers own intellectual development;
also, the need for the teacher to coarsen and
simplify his ideas to fit the disciples mind will ultimately
detract from the depth and abstraction of his own thoughts.
By the same token, dealing with people of lesser moral and
spiritual caliber than oneself cannot but affect ones
own spiritual state The recipients of this spiritual
charity will be elevated by it, but its giver will be
diminished by the relationship, however subtly.
Indeed, we find an example of such spiritual descent in Moses
bestowal of the leadership upon Joshua. In contrast to the
appointment of the seventy elders, where he was told to emanate
his spirit to them, Moses is here commanded to Take
Joshua, the son of Nun, and lay your hand upon him... and
give of your glory upon himnot
only to lay his hand on Joshua, but also to give
him from his glory. Thus the Midrash comments: Lay
your hand upon himlike one who kindles a candle
from a candle; Give of your glorylike one who
pours from one vessel into another vessel.
In other words, there are two kinds of spiritual gifts: a
gift that costs the giver nothing (kindling
a candle from a candle), and a gift that involves a
removal of something from the giver in order that the recipient
should receive something (pouring from one vessel into
another). While Moses appointment of the seventy
elders was achieved at no cost to himself, his bestowal of
leadership upon Joshua involved both elements of spiritual
enrichment: emanation and giving.
At times we must indeed sacrifice something of ourselves
for the benefit of a fellow. But there are also times when
we might rise to a height of benevolence that transcends the
laws and limitations of give and take. Times when we commit
ourselves to our fellow so absolutely, when the gift comes
from a place so deep and so true within us, that we only grow
from the experience, no matter how much we give of ourselves.
Based on a letter written by the Rebbe in 5726 (1966)
A railway system offers two modes of travel: by express train,
or via a local line. The express train takes its passengers
swiftly and directly to their destination. The local train,
which most passengers use (either because the express train
does not stop at their station, or because they cannot tolerate
its speed) travels more slowly and makes many stops
along the way.
These stops are of two types. There are minor stations, at
which the train stops for but a short while to take on passengers.
And there are major stations that are of a much lengthier
duration, for here not only human passengers are received
into the train but also livestock and other cargoes. This
is a time-consuming operation, for animals are frightened
by the commotion (for good reasonthey are on their way
to being de-animalized and converted into human nourishment),
and the cargo being loaded is heavy and bulky.
Before the train pulls out from the station, it sounds its
whistle to notify the passengers who are busy with their bundles
(or who have perhaps forgotten that they have a journey to
make) that it is time to embark. Once, twice, thrice the whistle
blows, and when this, too, is to no avail, the train begins
to slowly move, to show that it means business and that this
is the last chance to hop on before it picks up speed and
leaves the station behind.
The Limitations of Haste
Regarding the ultimate Redemption and the era of universal
peace and perfection it will usher in, the prophet prophesies:
I, G-d, will hasten it in its time.
Whereupon the Talmud asks: If the Redemption shall come in
its time, then, by definition, it has not been hastened;
and if it is hastened, it is not in its time!
The Talmud explains that the prophet is speaking of two possible
routes by which the Redemption may come about. If mankind
is in a state of merit, it will be hastened; if,
however, we are not meritorious, the Redemption
will come in its time.
Chassidic teaching adds that, in a certain sense, a redemption
that comes in its time is greater than a hastened
redemption. A hastened redemption is one that is imposed on
a still-imperfect world from Above; the nature of reality
has not itself changed, but has been overwhelmed by an infusion
of divine light. On the other hand, a redemption coming in
its time means that the world has been transformed from
within, at its own pace, by its own internal processes. Thus
it is deeper and truer than a hastened redemption.
Every persons reality consists of three basic components.
At the core of our being is our G-dly soul, the
spark of divinity that drives our quest for self-transcendence.
This is the man in manthat which distinguishes
the human being from all other creations.
Enfolding the G-dly soul is an animal soul, whose
drives and instincts man shares with all other living things.
These include the drives for self-preservation, self-propagation
and self-fulfillment. In man, these might take on more civilized
and sophisticated forms, but they remain, in essence,
animal drives and instincts.
Extrinsic to both the G-dly and animal souls is our physical
body and physical environment. This is the third, most material
and lifeless element of our reality, devoid even
of the limited spirituality of the animal soul.
A hastened redemption embraces only the G-dly soul of man,
which is by nature receptive to the divine. The other two
componentsthe animal soul and the material worldare
only affected from without. They might be swept along
when the divine spark of the G-dly soul erupts into flame,
but they themselves have not truly been redeemed.
Life is thus comparable to a railway. There are express trains
that take the direct route to the end of the line. But these
carry only passengers of the highest class. Small-town
passengers, animals and inanimate cargo are too cumbersome
for so speedy a ride.
The local train carries them all: stragglers, animals aspiring
to be absorbed by the human, raw materials aspiring toward
human utility. There are many stations on this journey, of
longer or shorter duration according to need; there are second
and third warnings for those lagging behind; there are many
types of cars, designed for the particular needs of every
type of passenger.
All this makes for a more laborious progress toward the ultimate
destination. But while the express train achieves its objective
more swiftly and smoothly, its achievements are narrower in
scope and shallower in depth than those of the local train.
What is true of the railways of history also applies to our
individual journeys. In our quest towards personal redemption,
we also have a choice of these two routes. We can strive to
stimulate what is highest and most G-dly within us, and assume
that everything else will be swept along. Or we
can take the slower, more laborious route of refining and
developing also the animal and inanimate
elements of our personality and world, toward a less speedy,
yet more profound redemption.
Based on an address by the Rebbe, Tishrei 26, 5711 (October
Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber
. The Leviticus verses also appear, almost verbatim,
in Exodus 27 (vv. 20-21). But as Rashi explains in his commentary
on Leviticus 24:2, This (i.e., the Leviticus verses)
is the section on the commandment of the lighting. The section
And you shall command... (the Exodus verses)
was said only as [part of the instructions regarding] the
work of the Sanctuary, to explain the function of the menorah.
. Tanya, ch. 2, after Job 31:2.
. The windows of the Sanctuary were narrow on the
inside and broad on the outside (I Kings 6:4. Normally,
windows set within thick stone walls are constructed wider
on the inside, so as to maximize the amount of light entering
from without). This, explain our sages, was to symbolize
that the Temple did not require light from the outside,
but was itself a source of light for the world (Rashi on
verse; Midrash Rabbah, Vayikra 31:6 and Bamidbar 15:1).
. Likkutei Sichot, vol. XXVIII, pp. 60-67.
. See Ibn Ezra on verse.
. Midrash Rabbah on verse.
. Likkutei Sichot, vol. VII, pp. 75-81.
. Talmud, Sanhedrin 98a.
. Thus the Chassidic masters interpret the exchange
between brothers Jacob and Esau following their meeting
in Genesis 33. When Esau invites Jacob to join him in his
mountain kingdom of Seir, the father of Israel replies:
My lord knows that the children are tender and that
the suckling flocks and herds are a care to me; if they
are driven too quickly for one day, all the flock will die.
Please, let my lord go on, ahead of his servant. I will
lead on slowly, according to the pace of the work before
me and the pace of the flocks, until I come to my lord,
to Seir (Genesis 33:13-14).
Our sages explain that Esau was inviting Jacob to the grand
finale of history, when The saviors shall ascend Mount
Zion to judge the mountain of Esau, and the kingdom shall
be G-ds (Obadiah 1:21). Jacobs reply was
that while he, himself, was ready for the Redemption, his
children and flock were not. So,
though it might take many generations until I come
to my lord, to Seir, Jacob did not wish to avail
himself of the offer of a hastened Redemption, electing
instead to lead on slowly, according to the pace of
the work before me and the pace of the flocks (Torah
Ohr, Vayishlach; see Rashi on Genesis 33:14).
. Likkutei Sichot, vol. II, pp. 445-446.