From the collection of the British Museum, an illustration of Aaron lighting the menorah, ca. 1280
From the collection of the British Museum, an illustration of Aaron lighting the menorah, ca. 1280

What kindles the Jewish soul?

Beha’alotecha
Numbers 8:1-12:16
Zecharia 2:14-4:7

Neshama. Soul. We speak of it often. Even before we get out of bed each morning, we say Modeh Ani to thank God for returning our neshama.

In the first morning bracha, which begins with Elohai Neshama, we recognize and affirm that we are merely custodians of this neshama; for a period of time we must safeguard it, but we also acknowledge that the time will come when it must be returned.

Even outside of a religious context, we talk often about our soul — loving somebody “with all my heart and soul,” for example — as if it’s a given that we know what we are describing.

But what does a soul look like? What does it do? The wisest of all men, King Solomon, gives us a description: “The soul of man is God’s candle” (Proverbs 20:27). In one simple sentence, we are told that to understand the nature of our souls is to discover and look deeply into God’s flame. But where does one find that?

The name of this week’s parashah, Beha’alotcha, refers to the kindling of the menorah, God’s flame; however, it literally translates to “when you raise” or “lift up,” because the function of Aaron, the high priest, was not simply to light candles.

In 1977, newly elected Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin traveled to Washington for his first meeting with President Jimmy Carter. Before their meeting, Begin and Israeli diplomat Yehuda Avner visited the Lubavitcher Rebbe to receive his blessing.

After the White House meeting, Avner returned to New York to brief the Rebbe on what Carter and Begin discussed, and in his wonderful memoir “The Prime Ministers,” Avner described that get-together.

“We spoke in Hebrew — the Rebbe’s classic, mine modern. And as he dissected my Washington report, his air of authority deepened,” wrote Avner, who served as a speechwriter and/or adviser to five Israeli prime ministers. “It came of something beyond knowledge. It was in his state of being, something he possessed in his soul, something given to him under the chestnut and maple trees of Brooklyn rather than under the poplars and pines of Jerusalem …

“Raising his palm in a gesture of reassurance, and with an encouraging smile, he said, ‘Let me tell you what I try to do. Imagine you’re looking at a candle. What you are really seeing is a mere lump of wax with a thread down its middle. So when do the thread and wax become a candle? Or, in other words, when do they fulfill the purpose for which they were created? When you put a flame to the thread, then the candle becomes a candle.’

“As he was speaking, a rhythmic cadence crept into his voice in the manner of a talmudist poring over his text, so that what he said next came out as a chant: ‘The wax is the body, and the wick the soul. Ignite the soul with the fire of Torah and a person will then fulfill the purpose for which he or she was created. And that is what I try to do — to ignite the soul of our people with the fire of Torah.’

“… [Soon I] took my leave, pausing at the door to ask, ‘My candle — has the Rebbe lit it?’

“‘No,’ he said, clasping my hand. ‘I have given you the match. Only you can light your candle.’”

The menorah in the Temple wasn’t just an ornate golden candelabra for show. It was the vehicle through which God empowered the spiritual head of the Jewish people to ignite the flame of every Jew.

Each and every one of us possesses one of God’s candles, our neshama. It has a limitless reservoir of light, and all it needs is a match to bring forth its innate flame.

So we see that God didn’t command Aaron to just light. Rather, he was instructed to “raise,” to lift up, every soul and show it its fiery potential, so that it becomes inspired to be its own independent source of light.

The Kabbalah teaches that the seven branches of the menorah were symbolic of all the different types of neshamot. Our flames may branch out and burn separately, yet we are all connected at the stem.

Fused from a single core, the menorah highlights that we are all able to shine independently yet simultaneously remain connected to one another.

Shlomo Zarchi
Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi

Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi is the spiritual leader of Congregation Chevra Thilim in San Francisco. He can be reached at rabbizarchi@sfshul.org.