Light & Wisdom


Moshe Ben-Chaim



In Talmud Sabbath 23b, Rav Huna makes an enigmatic statement:


“One who is zealous with lights will have sons who are wise students.”


Rashi comments: “lights” refers to the two commands of Sabbath and Channukah lights. Rashi quotes King Solomon’s “Proverbs’ (6:23) “For a command is a flame, and Torah is light...” Rashi’s meaning is that the former generates the latter: the act of igniting a flame on Sabbath and Channukah results in wise sons who possess Torah wisdom. Rashi may have found a supporting verse for Rav Huna, but what is the sense of this verse, and Rav Huna’s statement? How does the simple act of lighting Sabbath and Chanukah lights create sons who are wise? What is the relationship between lights and wise sons?


Let us examine the context of the quote (Proverbs, 6:20-23):


“[20] My son, guard the commands of your father and do not forsake the Torah of your mother. [21] Tie them to your heart often; bind them on your neck. [22] When you walk, it will guide you, when you repose, it will guard you, and when you awake, it will converse with you. [23] For a command is a flame, and Torah is light, and reproofs in moral instruction are the way of life.”


We note many ideas, even within a single verse. For example, verse 20 compares “guarding father’s commands” to “not forsaking mother’s Torah”. We learn that Torah as a complete system straddles both: 1) commands and 2) Torah, or moral instruction. It is insufficient that God give a system of commands, without also offering us a moral code. This necessity of a dual approach, or borne out of man’s dual nature: he is intellectual and emotional. Both aspects of man’s nature are molded through, 1) following commands, which enlighten our minds to new, intelligent insights, and 2) moral restrictions, necessary for transforming our raw, emotional natures into individuals with refined, moral codes. The term “guard” applies to commands, as we must adhere meticulously to Torah performances. “Guarding” is applicable to that which must be carefully performed. We must not deviate, as God knows which commands will benefit our human nature, which He too created. Knowing both as the Creator, it is foolish for man not to cleave to and guard the 613 Commands. The term “do not forsake” is applicable to moral instruction. For it is here that man feels emotionally restricted, thereby wishing to abandon and forsake these stressful restrictions. As such, man is warned by King Solomon not to “forsake”, since his natural, yet infantile emotional make up yearns for instinctual gratification. He will desire to run from imposed, Torah morality, as it stifles his current drive towards instinctual satisfaction…at every turn.


Verse 21. “Tie them to your heart often; bind them on your neck.” King Solomon advises us to tie the Torah’s principles to our “heart: and “neck”. What is the metaphor of these two locations? The heart is our very life source, more than all other organs. King Solomon advises man to tie the Torah’s principles to our very being. These ideas must penetrate our soul, until they become our very values. Only when man values something, can it be truly said that he has changed himself. Simple utterances are meaningless, if we do not truly believe what we enunciate. Additionally, as my close friend Rabbi Roth taught me, Maimonides teaches in his Commentary on the Mishna, (last Mishna in Talmud Maccos) that when man performs a Mitzvah for no other reason than his love of that command, only then does he entitle himself to the Next World. Again we see that Torah demands honesty, and that one truly values his performances. But performance alone is insufficient. King Solomon states that we must also “bind them on our necks.” The neck is the seat of what activity? Speech. Meaning, we must not only confirm with our hearts the truths of Torah, but our “speech”, or primary mode of expression and activity, must be engaged in Torah discussion. Only when man reaches this level, do we say he truly values Torah, to the point that he engages regularly in Torah discussions. Man’s activity is the barometer of his convictions.


Verse 22. “When you walk, it will guide you, when you lie down, it will guard you, and when you awake, it will converse with you.” How do we define these three states? “Walking” refers to our conscious, daily life. In this state, Torah “guides” us. This is easily understood. When we “lie down” to sleep, we now enter the stage where we lose our control; we are vulnerable. The Rabbis teach on the first page of Talmud Brachos, that we must recite the Shima prayer before going to sleep. We must ponder the Torah fundamentals, which the Shima contains at the time that our consciousness state slips away. At this critical moment, our emotions gain the upper hand. Sleep and falling into it, are emotional states. And at such a time, we must strengthen our bond to the Torah principles, lest we allow our emotions to destroy us. Thus, King Solomon chooses the expression of “guard”. At this time, we are in desperate need of a guard against our emotional impulses. And the opposite state of falling to sleep is our waking up. If we earnestly study, delving into God’s wisdom, applying His absolute, Torah truths during our daily lives, these ideals make their mark so indelibly, that they are the first thing on our minds when we awake. We are caught up with brilliant insights that we cannot wait to reengage in further study. This concept that the Torah is personified, as “speaking to us”, teaches that one who is devoted to his studies, has an additional ally: his studies take on a ‘life of their own’. Their appeal is so great, that his mind, unconsciously, initiates him back into Torah thought - even upon his waking. Just as one is impatient about an upcoming trip - waking on the day of his journey with great anticipation - so too the Torah student. Upon his waking up, he is immediately drawn back by the appeal of Torah, as if it “speaks to him”. King Solomon sums up the three states of our existence: consciousness, losing consciousness, and regaining it. In all three, the King advises us to insure we never abandon Torah thought.


This may seem insurmountable to many of us, but think about how King Solomon referred to torah as a “plaything” of God (Proverbs, 8:30). Just as a child with a new toy is engulfed with an exhilarated exuberance, so too were the Rabbis and our prophets. This must teach us that although we misdirect our childlike, excitement towards mundane activities and values, it is quite achievable that we too may reach an attachment to wisdom with this very same emotional draw. Do not be misguided by the fact that you do not see many adults – if any at all – with a youthful excitement about life. Children possess this excitement, and we are but older children in this respect. We have not lost this capacity for zest and abandon. What we have lost is our accurate selection of what object truly fuels the fire of our passions. King Solomon refers to wisdom as “playing” before God. It is something God created, containing unlimited enjoyment. Let us heed his words, and not the misguided masses.


Verse 23. “For a command is a flame, and Torah is light, and reproofs in moral instruction are the way of life.” A command offers illumination. Yet…it is but a single flame. It possesses the characteristic of illumination, but falls short in terms of giving us a full picture. However, Torah as a complete system is “light”. Only when one embraces the complete system, is he afforded with sufficient light for his life’s journey. Life has many twists and turns. Our nature as human beings is very complex. Knowledge is not readily available without due study of many hours. To live life properly, making correct decisions in all areas, to guard against destructive emotions, and to take a course that ensures success for our families and us…we require a charted map. One command is beneficial, but it cannot imbue us with the complete knowledge necessary for a full lifespan. The Torah is a complete system, addressing each and every aspect of our existence. Following a few, or even most of God’s law, we will fail. No, we cannot do it in a day. But our mind’s eye must be focused on this essential idea: everything in the Torah is absolutely necessary. Unlike the boors who ridicule “all those restrictions”, God’s opinion is different. He knows our nature, and created the Torah as a remedy. Just as a doctor would be listened to when he warns us that we will avoid death from disease by talking 10 pills daily, and we do, certainly, we must have greater conviction in what our Creator advises…not just for physical life, but the life of our soul.


“For a command is a flame, and Torah is light, and reproofs in moral instruction are the way of life.” Notice that this verse commences with “For”, meaning, it comes to explain the King’s previous statements. He is explaining exactly why Torah will guide, guard and engage us: it is that which “illuminates”. Without knowledge of reality, what use is our life? The world operates by a design, and only through understanding this design, adhering meticulously to a system, which follows this design, will we find happiness, avoiding the conflicts experienced by those devoid of understanding. And as we said, intelligence is but one half of the equation…we also require moral instruction to restrain our instinctual impulses. Thus, the King concludes this verse with, “and reproofs in moral instruction are the way of life.” Following our emotions can remove us from life, both here and in the next world.


We may now return to our very first question: What does Rav Huna mean by “One who is zealous with lights will have sons who are wise students”? We mentioned that Rashi comments: “lights” refers to the two commands of Sabbath and Channukah lights. Rashi quotes King Solomon, “For a command is a flame, and Torah is light…” Thus, if one is careful with these two commands (flame), he will beget wise sons (light).


What is specific to Sabbath and Channukah lights, that these two commands were designated as essential to begetting wise sons? I believe by defining the nature of both Sabbath and Channukah, we will arrive at one possible answer.


Sabbath celebrates God as the ‘Creator’. Channukah celebrates God as the ‘Worker of miracles’. Wee must appreciate that God does both: He created the universe, and by definition, controls it, at times, creating a suspension in the very universal laws: what we refer to as miracles. On a deeper level, God’s act of creation teaches us that the universe operates by set laws, by wisdom. Our lives must be led by this truth, and by our relentless search for new knowledge. Whether we are walking, lying down, or rising up, we must never lose sight of this, our essential goal in life. But not only is God the Creator of all, including knowledge, He is also very much involved in our lives. He performs miracles. Thus, our knowledge of God is twofold: 1) He is Creator and 2) He is our God, readily available to intervene with miracles for those who follow Him.


If we possess an accurate knowledge of God as Creator, and the One who intervened at Sinai with His gift of the Torah, and guarding all of His followers with miracles, we then gain a true appreciation and knowledge of Judaism’s fundamentals. We then will pass this on to our children, and they too will be come wise.


One who is careful with the Sabbath and Channukah lights is one who understands Judaism’s fundamentals concerning the most essential of all ideas.


What is God? He is the Creator of all: “Sabbath celebrates Creation”. He is the Controller of all: “Channukah celebrates Miracles.”