A little bit of light
Baha’alotecha | Numbers 8:1-12:16
I have always been fascinated by candles and their humanlike quality. In my teens, I was taught to meditate in front of a burning candle and associate my meditation with the biblical phrase, “A candle of God is the soul of man.”
This week’s parsha speaks of Aaron igniting candles in the ancient Tabernacle. The Bible speaks not of “lighting” the candles, but of “raising up” the candles. The commentaries point out that it is not sufficient to kindle the candle; one must see to it that the flame continue to burn on its own.
The candle thus becomes a metaphor for the process of teaching, parent to child or master to disciple. It is never sufficient to merely touch the child with the flame of knowledge. Rather, one must “raise up” the flame so that it will grow. The teacher’s task is to ensure that the flame continue to burn on its own, that knowledge will be a lifetime process.
Another traditional Jewish saying is “A little bit of light can dispel much darkness.” The single candle teaches us how much good a single person, or even a single act, can accomplish. It is not necessary to try to ignite powerful floodlights; if all one can do is light a match, that paltry act can achieve unforeseen illumination.
Finally, there is a talmudic dictum: “A candle for one is a candle for 100.” Certain things in life, an item of food for example, can meet the needs of only one person. Other things, certain tools, for example, can meet the needs of only one person at a time. But one candle can benefit the single individual needing illumination and can shed equal illumination for many others in the room.
And so it is in the human realm. There are things we can do that will benefit not only a single particular other but an entire group, an entire community, an entire world. If we teach lessons that are useful and spiritually uplifting, those lessons are not limited to those who hear them. Rather, they can benefit many unseen others. Intellectual accomplishments and religious achievements are candles not just for one, but for hundreds.
I have listed only three of the infinite number of ways in which the soul of man is the candle of God: Lighting candles symbolizes the teaching process, the single act can have massive consequences, and we can affect a much wider circle than we think.
The opening verses in this week’s portion render the candle image so central to the Tabernacle and Temple service, because the Torah wishes us to think about the candle, to meditate on it, and to discover for ourselves the manifold analogies that lie embedded in the candle image.
“Behold the candle,” the Torah exclaims. It is one of the oldest, and certainly one of the simplest, human tools. But it can be a metaphor for the power and potential of the human soul, which is no less than the candle of God.