Rav Avraham Yitzchak haKohen Kook (Ein Ayah, Shabbat 21a):
Certain materials, such as wool, may not be used as wicks for Sabbath lights because they don’t hold a steady flame. Ordinarily, these wicks may not be used in the Temple either. However, at the Simchat Beit HaShoeva on Sukkot, the worn-out pants and belts of the kohanim [which were made from wool] were used to make wicks for the Temple lamps. (Gemara Shabbat 21a)
Every human faculty is associated with either the soul or the physical body. These two dimensions of the human personality operate in fundamentally different ways. The soul’s different means of expression—character traits, imagination, emotion, a sense of inspiration, etc.—all involve the conscious self. Our ability to reflect and stand outside of ourselves enables the Torah to address these “spiritual” aspects of life directly. In this regard, our feelings, thoughts and ambitions are wicks that can readily hold a Divine flame.
In contrast, bodily faculties (like sexual urges and the need for food) involve no conscious process of cognition, and operate without any deliberation or volition. Unlike the “higher” expressions of the soul, the bare experience of physical desire is neither moral nor immoral, but simply devoid of moral content altogether. And because these faculties operate on the level of instinct, they cannot be conscripted outright to higher, spiritual goals. Bodily desires are like wicks that do not hold a steady flame. After all, they must be coaxed through initiative taken by man’s higher self. This requires reflection, Torah study and refinement of one’s character traits.
One could argue that this process is a waste of time, and that God wants us to embrace an ascetic approach to life. Perhaps the body really is the prison of the soul, and physical desires are something to be eliminated or tolerated as a necessary evil. But God forbid that the Torah would ever endorse such an approach! The Jewish path does not demand that we afflict or weaken any natural human capacity, nor diminish its stature or splendor. God made physical desires a part of human nature, and tasked the body, not just the soul, with bearing Divine light. [See Seforno on Bereishit 3:25.] To tamper with these desires and stamp them out is an affront to Him and His wisdom. It is a sickness, not a path to spiritual completeness.
This is the deeper meaning of the Sages’ teaching that the pants and belts of the kohanim were repurposed for wicks at the Simchat Beit HaShoeva. Unlike the other priestly vestments, these garments were associated with the lower parts of the body, those associated with the digestive [kohanim tied their belts at elbow-level, not on their waist; see Gemara Zevachim 19a] and sexual organs. Our Sages are teaching that these faculties can also be consecrated to bear the Divine flame, provided that they are kept within holy boundaries and guided by the Torah and its sanctity. [In the Hebrew, Rav Kook references the mishnah in Sukkah (5:2) that care was taken at the Simchat Beit HaShoeva to ensure separation between men and women.]
Because the physical world is full of temptations, this mode of Divine service is a demanding one. There is a constant danger that man’s desires will breach their proper boundaries, and this peril will remain until the Messianic era. Only then, when the world will be totally permeated with Godliness, will bodily desires be able to serve as the day-to-day substrate of our Divine service. For this reason, the pants and belts of the kohanim were used as wicks only a few days out of the year, at the Simchat Beit HaShoeva—and even then, only under the watchful gaze of the holy kohanim. In our pre-Messianic reality, the balance of our Divine service must be through wicks that hold a steady flame—the refinement of the intellect and the emotional dimension of man’s personality, fueled by the “oil” of Torah. And although the body cannot yet play an autonomous role in man’s striving toward the Divine, even in the pre-Messianic era it too can be illuminated with sacred light, and summoned to participate in pure and joyful living.
Nathan Hyman resides in Hillside, New Jersey, with his wife and three children. When not pursuing his passion for Rav Kook’s teachings, he works as a corporate lawyer for biotech and pharmaceutical companies. His renditions of Rav Kook’s teachings are available at www.MarehKohen.com.