Excerpted from The Seven Lights, by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz and Josy Eisenberg
The war of the Maccabees against the Greeks was, first and foremost, a war between light and darkness. The little cruse of holy oil, that was hidden away in the Temple and was so hard to find, symbolizes the challenge our ancestors faced: to reveal the light. We relive this need and this lesson every year on Hanukkah, by lighting an additional light on each of the eight days of the holiday.
But what is light? Light is one of the first phenomena of which a human being is aware. It is the first thing a newborn baby discovers. Light straddles two universes: it is both real and symbolic at the same time. It lies midway between the material and the spiritual, and forms the most basic and natural tie that binds them.
In modern science, light plays this same fundamental role: in a cosmos governed by relativity, the speed of light is the sole constant, the universal yardstick. Moreover, everything we see is only a category of light, since it is not the objects themselves that we see, but only their light. This is true also of the Almighty, the Infinite Light, Ohr Ein Sof: we cannot know the infinite, but only what it emanates, its light.
In the book of Proverbs there are two verses that mention light: “The mitzva is a flame and the Torah, light” (Proverbs 6:23), and “The soul of man is the lamp of God” (Ibid, 20:27). The Torah reflects the infinite light, whereas the mitzva sheds light on a specific individual in a specific situation. But the mitzva is also a flame – namely, a small fire connected to the consuming fire of God. Light enables us to see, while fire acts upon things and transforms them. The mitzva does both things: it changes the world by illuminating it.
In a book called Sefer Hasidim (“The Book of the Devout”), the 613 limbs and organs of the human body are associated with the 613 commandments of the Torah, each commandment corresponding to a specific part of the body. Since each mitzva gives off its own small light, man, then, is an array of lights.
Our lives consist of lighting one light here, one light there. All these lights together make up the ideal image of the person, as though man were merely a brace, or a stand, for the 613 lights.
Man’s duty is to make light. Divine light illuminates the world through the flame of the mitzvot, while life on earth enables the soul to develop and go through a process of maturation. We can now see why mitzva and soul are equated: Just as the oil of the mitzva is transformed into light, so man’s soul becomes the light of God.