“[God] makes His messengers [to be] spirits, and His servants — burning fire.” (Ps. 104:4)
The meaning of this verse is not clear. First, we must understand: what is the difference between a malach (a messenger) and a meshareit (a servant or minister)?
A malach is a messenger who serves the king from afar, carrying out the king’s orders throughout the kingdom. A meshareit, on the other hand, is a servant who works in proximity to the king, tending to his master’s needs within the palace. Rav Kook explained that the verse describes not only God’s celestial servants, but also His human servants. We serve God as malachim and meshartim, as messengers and servants. How?
When we pray, we reveal the holiness of our inner ratzon, our yearnings to be close to God and aspirations for holiness. Thus, as we stand in prayer, we are like servants in the king’s palace. Regarding the service of prayer it says, “Fortunate are those who dwell in Your house” (Ps. 84:5). This is serving God “in His house” — within the realm of purity and holiness.
Our second path of serving God is through Torah study. Unlike prayer which is directed upwards, toward holy aspirations, Torah knowledge flows downwards, applying God’s Will to mundane matters. Rabbis and scholars who immerse themselves in Torah study in order to apply its teachings to everyday life are like messengers who promulgate the king’s decrees throughout the kingdom. Regarding this service of God it says, “Fortunate are those whose way is perfect, who walk with God’s Torah” (Ps. 119:1). They travel throughout the kingdom, spreading God’s word.
But what does it mean that God “makes His messengers to be spirits” and “His servants a burning fire"?
‘Spirits’ (ruchot) refer to spiritual aspirations — God’s will. ‘Burning fire,’ on the other hand, refers to the clarity and brilliance of the intellect — specifically Torah wisdom — as it says, “Is not My word like fire?” (Jer. 23:29)
The verse describes a magic circle between these two modes of serving God. Torah leads to prayer, and prayer leads to Torah. A Ferris wheel ascending in prayer and returning down in Torah wisdom. How does this work?
We pray for many things — health, sustenance, redemption, peace, and so on. But the ultimate goal of our prayers is to merit Torah knowledge. All of our requests are only so that we will be able to study Torah in peace and quiet, as Maimonides wrote in the Mishneh Torah (Laws of Kings, 12:7). Concerning those who do not aspire to greater Torah knowledge, it is written, “One who turns his ear from hearing Torah — even his prayer is despised” (Proverbs 28:9).
Isaiah similarly decried the belief that it is possible to serve God only through prayer:
“Because this people have come close — with their mouths and their lips they honor Me, but their heart was distant from Me, and their fear of Me was that of people accustomed to following the Law.” (Isaiah 29:13)
To serve God by rote and habit, without Torah wisdom and enlightenment, is a hollow and empty service. This is the service of prayer that does not seek Torah wisdom.
And what about Torah study? While prayer reveals our inner aspirations, the goal of Torah study is to refine and elevate those aspirations.
It is crucial that this be the goal of our Torah learning. Torah study that is only for intellectual pleasure brought about the Temple’s destruction and the exile. As the Sages taught, “Why was the Land lost? Because they did not recite a blessing before studying Torah” (Nedarim 81a). Why is so important to recite this blessing before Torah study? Because it reflects our awareness that the goal of our study is to learn and assimilate God’s will.
Thus we see the interplay between these two modes of service. Prayer exists in the realm of our inner will, and aspires to higher wisdom. Torah exists in the realm of higher wisdom, and aspires to grasp God’s Will and accordingly elevate our inner will.
Now we may properly understand the verse. God “makes His messengers [to be] spirits.” He makes His messengers — those occupied in His Torah — to be ruchot, to cleave to God’s Will. And He makes His servants, those who serve Him in prayer, “a burning fire” — they seek the fire of Torah wisdom. Then their prayer is not an unthinking service of rote and habit, and their Torah is not an abstract intellectual exercise.
When both of these activities are directed as they should be, the result is, as the verse continues, a stable Divine service: “He founded the land on its foundations so that it should never fall.”
(Adapted from Olat Re’iyah vol. II, pp. 149-151)