An Enlightening Metaphor

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim




"Nare mitzvah, v'Torah Or" - "A (single) flame is a command, and Torah is light." (Proverbs, 6:22) 

To my amazement and enjoyment, I have learned many lessons from this brief statement. One idea is that mitzvah is a quantity of Torah: Mitzvah is but a single flame: it has the property of illumination but not in the necessary "quantity" to benefit man's entire existence. Whereas Torah is a complete system, it provides the full spectrum of the element – "light" – what is necessary for man's existence.

We learn that man cannot survive on mitzvah alone, just as man cannot survive with a single candle. Heat and light are essential for man's health, cooking and occupations. Interestingly, it does not say "and Torah is heat", but Torah is "light". This teaches that the more essential component of light is its illuminating property - that which benefits man's mind - and not heat which is a benefit to man's body. We derive the lesson that man's true perfection exists in his mind: his thoughts and values, not bodily perfection.

Man's life depends on abundant light. So too, a single mitzvah perfects but a small part of man. Man is a multifaceted creature with many components in dire need of guidance. Only the Creator knows man best, and can prescribe the proper actions and ideas essential for man's goal of happiness and perfection. The full range of commands and ideas encapsulated in the entire Torah is the correct prescription for man's well being. Not less...a single mitzvah will fail to complete mans mission.

Light is used as a metaphor for Torah and mitzvah equally. This teaches that Torah as a whole system and its parts is what removes darkness, i.e., ignorance. Torah is essential for man's understanding of reality. Without Torah man remains ignorant.

We also learn that mitzvah — actions — are but a small part, they are but a "flame." Torah on the other hand — a system of knowledge behind the commands — is more essential. Our goal is the appreciation of God's knowledge which formulated the commands. According to Maimonides, commandments are a means to occupy our actions when we are not learning. The Talmud too describes Rav Shimon ben Yochai's students as they compared all commands to Torah study and derived that nothing compares to Torah study, not even other commands (Proverbs 8:11:) "For better is wisdom than pearls, and all desirous things do not compare to it." This means anything desirous — even other commandments — do not compare to Torah study.

Wisdom is how God's world operates. True appreciation for God, and our best existence here on Earth can only happen if we conform to how things truly operate, and conform our minds' ideas to God's system. Strict adherence to truth and all that is real will guide us to the most pleasant lives. More essentially however, by being honest and studying the world and the Torah with the goal of apprehending what is based on reason, we come to a true appreciation of God. Without reason, we see even religious Jews attracted to nonsensical practices as red bendels, checking mezuzot when ill, praying to dead Rebbes, carrying books and chamsas as amulets, thereby removing themselves from God. Their concept of God is complete wrong through these gravely corrupt, idolatrous distortions which our Torah prohibits. They have no share in the world to come. If they would only study what the Torah and our Rishonim teach, they would see the light. "And I have seen that wisdom surpasses folly, as is the benefit of light over darkness." (Ecclesiastes 2:13)

"A (single) flame is a command, and Torah is light."

A single command merely offers minute benefit, as does a single flame. A single flame illuminates; but poorly. A single mitzvah is not going to complete man; it cannot "perfect" him. In stark contrast, "Torah is light." Torah — a complete system designed by the ulitmately wise Creator — addresses "all" of man's needs. Torah gives man light — the complete illumination and perfection.

Our Prophets were very wise; their words require diligent study and awe. So study what they wrote; do not say more or less than what their words demand. Be honest. Be true to their methods of education.