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A Country Without Oil? Not on Chanukah!

December 14, 2006 By:
Rabbi David Gutterman
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Do you recall Golda Meir's famous quip: "Why did God bring us to the only place in the Middle East without oil?" Let's think about that for a moment, and then think Chanukah. Because no other holiday is as dominated by this oil-slick motif as is the Festival of Lights.

The menorah is optimally lit with oil per the Talmud's prescription, and even if this is not your current practice, think of the week's menu: latkes and sufganiyot ("doughnuts") suffused with oil. There is, I believe, a significant insight at play, but first, let's recall the basic story.

In 163 BCE -- after years of guerrilla warfare against the Syrian Greeks -- the Jews took back the Temple in Jerusalem, purified it, reinstituted the Temple service, as well as reasserted autonomy and independence in Judea and its environs. This independence, by the way, would evaporate inside of 200 years, only to be restored in the national renaissance of May 14, 1948.

The daily temple service began with the oil-lighting of the menorah, and the Hasmoneans -- better known by their nom de guerre, Maccabees (meaning "hammers") -- wanted to reinstitute this prominent service. Amid the debris caused by war, they discovered, according to the Talmud's rendition, one vessel of pure olive oil with the seal of the High Priest still intact. This seal indicated that the oil had not been sullied by the Greeks.

The Mishnah gives us details and measurements as to how much oil was typically required for the menorah, and the particular cruse that was found contained a sufficient supply for one day's lighting. And in the words of the Talmud: naasah bo neis -- "a miracle occurred." This one vessel lasted for eight days.

And that leads me to think of the words of Israel's first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion: "To be a realist in the Middle East means that you have to believe in miracles!"

Defining the Agenda

The following year, the sages of that ancient generation declared a holiday to last eight days to enshrine in Jewish memory and ensconce in Jewish souls these extraordinary events.

What was the agenda of the Syrian Greeks and their Hellenistic followers? The Greeks were not interested in destroying the Jews of their day, but they were interested in diluting their Jewish ways. To put this bluntly, their agenda was not to destroy the Jewish body, but to anesthetize Jewish purpose. Genocide -- that is, the destruction of a people -- was not their intent, but rather Genesis-cide -- that is, the destruction of a sacred and distinct purpose -- was.

The property of oil is unique in that it does not mix with water. It does not, to use a modern idiom, assimilate. There is an embedded truth here. Watch.

In Hebrew, hashemen (hey, shin, mem, nun) means "the oil." Rearrange the letters, and they spell the word neshama ("soul"); rearrange the letters one more time, and they spell the word shmoneh ("eight"). The rabbis, in their wit and wisdom, ever the provokers and pedagogues, sought to burn this message into our psyches.

For eight days, we perform a mitzvah that highlights the Jewish soul and the Jewish way by using a substance that itself struggles to retain its autonomy, identity and character.

I also find it encouraging that every survey one reads regarding Jewish practice and ritual observance suggests that Chanukah is the most prevalent and widely practiced holiday.

Who said that God brought us to a place without oil?

May you and your family celebrate the power and magnificence of our Maccabean victory -- a victory that, yes, had a military and pragmatic aspect to it, but more so, a victory that hammers home the message that we are on a journey to recommit to our Jewish family and values.

Rabbi David Gutterman is the executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.

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