Posts Tagged 'Oil'

Between Brothers

In VaYishlach, the Torah portion two week’s ago, Yakov is preparing to reconnect and to reconcile with his estranged brother Esav. Here we read about the mysterious encounter between Yakov and the angel. We read that:

And he ( Yakov) took them, and sent them over the stream, and sent over that which he had. And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. ( Genesis 32: 24-25)

This is clearly am important moment. This is when Yakov and our whole nation become Yisrael. But, why did Yakov return over the Yabuk? On this, Rashi quotes the Talmud:

And Yakov was left alone. Said Rabbi Eleazar: He remained behind for the sake of some small jars. Hence [it is learned] that to the righteous their money is dearer than their body; and why is this? Because they do not stretch out their hands to robbery.(Hullin 91a)

Why would Yakov risk so much for these little jars? What was in these jars? If we go back to the beginning of his journey, we recall Yakov’s dream with the ladder. Upon waking up he consecrated that place with oil:

And Yakov woke out of his sleep, and he said: ‘Surely God is in this place; and I did not knew it.’ And he was afraid, and said: ‘How full of awe is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’ And Yakov rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put under his head, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it. ( Genesis 28: 16-18)

One reasonable reading is that these “small jars” had more of this consecrating oil in them. So why did he need them at this moment?

To understand this we need to understand Hanukkah. On its surfaces Hanukkah is a simple holidays. We see the themes of light breaking through the darkness, a small group banding together to beat a much stronger force, and the power of having faith in community. But like everything else in Jewish life nothing is ever as simple as it seems. So let’s look deeper into the three miracles of Hanukkah. One miracle is that small group of zealots were able to beat the stronger forces and regain control of the Temple. Keeping Yakov’s dream in mind we should not forget that when recovering the Temple they also recovered the Even haShetiya– the foundational rock that was his pillow and was at the center of many of our stories ( see Dome of the Rock). When they recaptured the Temple they found on small jar of oil for the menorah in the Temple. The second miracle was that despite the fact that this small jar only had enough oil for one day it lasted for eight days. This story about the miraculous Hanukkah oil has allowed us to look past focusing solely on the military victory. This is important in that the war was not a black and white fight between the Jews and the Greeks. Rather, it was a civil war between a small group of religious zealots and a larger group of their Hellenized Jewish brethren. In my mind this is itself the third miracle of Hanukkah. Our ability to tell the story of the second miracle of the oil to overshadow the first miracle of a civil war. The story of the oil helped cover over the other story of the recovery of the Temple with its foundational rock.

This year is special in that Hanukkah shares the calender with Thanksgiving. On its surface they are similar in that they are both days of giving thanks. But what is Thanksgiving? It is traced to a poorly documented 1621 celebration at Plymouth in present-day Massachusetts. We retell the story of the first settlers to America who found salvation when they reached another foundational rock- Plymouth Rock.

But is that the real story of Thanksgiving? On October 3rd 1863 President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday. There we read:

In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union…It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.

Like the third miracle of Hanukah, Thanksgiving is not really a story about the Pilgrams, but rather the constitution of a ritual of reconciliation post-civil war. Both Hanukkah and Thanksgiving represent the re-creation of national mythologies for the sake of mending the wounds of fighting between brothers. We in camping appreciate the impact of a good story regardless of its being true. Camp in its essence is an artificially manufactured community built on rituals, traditions, and history that need not be based on fact. It is here in this miraculous fabricated narrative that we create enduring memories of brotherhood. So while the story might not be true, the community could not be any more real.

So now I return to Yakov. Why did he return to get the small jars of oil? Like the Rabbis take on Hanukkah and Lincoln’s proclamation of Thanksgiving, Yakov was getting the oil in preparation to reconcile with his brother Esav. The stories we tell are the foundational rocks of our culture. The true miracle of our holidays is the oil that helps us rewrite those stories to make peace between brothers. Have a very meaningful Thanksgivukkah. Happy holidays.


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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