Pure in Process


In Tetzave, this week’s Torah portion, we read:

You shall further command the Children of Israel that they shall take for you shemen zakh, pure oil, crushed olives for illumination, to light the lamp continually. (Exodus 27:20)

What is shemen zakh,  this so-called pure oil? Citing a Gemara in Menachot, Rashi explains that there are three processes in making oil. First the olives are crushed or cracked, then pounded, and then milled. This special oil that the Torah requires for use in the Menorah is only the first drop resulting from the initial process. By limiting the collection to the initial process you can be sure that the oil was free of any particles from the seed that was broken in the subsequent processes. This commandment, coming from Moses, seems to set a high demand on the clarity of the oil. But this process of producing this shemen zakh,  seems rather wasteful. You are just taking a drop from each olive and that is all. You might argue that the importance of its use in the Menorah might justify the appearance of being wasteful. Or you might say the exact opposite: since this oil is being used for the highest purpose we should avoid any appearance of waste. In fact, nothing is wasted, the olives are not thrown away; the olives go through another process and the oil is used in the meal offerings.

However, there is a deeper meaning. Even if the olives are not wasted, why is the oil produced this way? The shemen zakh is the holiest and most pure because you only take what you need without compromising the seed. At the moment when this oil is collected there is a potential that the olive would not go through the next process. You could take this olive and plant it. The olive tree that would come of that seed and its fruit would be hekdesh, sanctified and unusable outside of the Mikdash. There is a possibility, in the production of shemen zakh, having a continual supply of fuel for the Menorah. This would be a real ner tamid, perpetual fire. This process, in theory, is a trade-off of short-term losses in time and effort for long-term gains in renewable fuel ensuring continuity. The so-called pure oil is not only uncontaminated in content, but also, potentially, in process.

After the Horban, any law relevant to the Mikdash, Temple, must seem irrelevant to our contemporary lives. Ha”ZaL, Sages of blessed memory, gracefully moved the rites of the Menorah as we celebrate them in Hanukah out of the Mikdash and into our homes and shuls.  It stands to reason, that if the Torah commanded that the light of the Menorah must come from such a pure process, we should also work towards finding renewable energy resources for lighting our homes and shuls. At the least we need to do our part in conserving and not wasting the resources that we have. By limiting our dependency on oil we can help ease our dependency on the oil states from the comforts of our homes and synagogues.

This is not only a compelling model for environmental and political concerns, but also for how we deal with each other on an interpersonal level. If we press too hard on the people around us and do not spend the time to cultivate the very foundations of those relationships, we will wear through our friends and loved ones. Over time those relationships will suffer. The ner tamid will only stay lit if we renew our commitment to the purest process in all of our dealings.

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