Ours is a world of potential. We dream of what can be so much more than dwelling on what could have been; we celebrate inventions that unlock hidden energies; and we focus much in the way of time and effort in uncovering our hidden abilities.
Depending on the field, we marvel at machines that turn raw materials into usable creations and award those who reveal beauty in the midst of chaos.
More than 100 years ago, scientists and engineers contemplated the forces that allow a simple curved object to translate forward motion through the air into the lift necessary to support a body heavier than the air around it.
And while the theory of lift still cannot be fully explained to account for all of the variables surrounding the flight of a lowly Cessna 152 at 1,000 feet — much less that of an eagle soaring through the mountains — one thing is clear: Were it not for the oncoming resistance faced by a wing, it would fall through the air, a hunk of metal full of potential but devoid of accomplishment.
In a way, the same can be said of the Jewish experience in its particulars. We need look no further than this week’s Torah portion, which leads off a discussion about the construction of certain priestly garments with the command to gather “clear oil of beaten olives for lighting” the Tabernacle’s candelabra.
The oil for lighting the candelabra had to be free of sediment, but the medieval commentators Rashi and Ibn Ezra disagree as to what the Hebrew word zach, meaning “clear” or “pure,” is referring. Either the oil itself must be pure, according to Rashi, or it must come from pure, pristine olives, according to Ibn Ezra.
A similar argument can be made with regard to the many mitzvahs present in Jewish tradition. In general, these divinely decreed deeds should be carried out in the best way possible, but do we say that all of the raw materials that go into a particular act, such as the items in a traditional Purim gift basket, be of the choicest and highest quality goods? Or, alternatively, do we say that regardless of the items used, no matter the inferiority of the component parts, what matters is the perfection of the final product? Phrased another way, can purity be extracted from the impure?
The story of Purim provides the answer. Talmudic commentary notes that the Book of Esther begins with a feast thrown by King Ahasuerus in celebration of his conquering land, including Israel. Many Jews in Persia joined the revelry. And it could be said that some among this set were far from “pure.”
But when Haman’s evil plot to wipe out all of the Jewish communities throughout the empire becomes known, everyone not only rallies around Mordechai and Queen Esther, but engages in penitential fasting as well. The end result, of course, is the Jewish victory over Haman, his henchmen and their supporters.
While the oil used in the Tabernacle need not have come from perfect olives, the olives themselves needed to be crushed in order to unlock the purity within.
In the same way, each and every one of us, though imperfect, can recognize the many challenges we face for the opportunities they really are: They allow us to discover our true potentials, to reveal the beauty and power within. Like the magic of an airfoil’s lift, let us all pierce through the resistance to soar ever higher.
Rabbi Joshua Runyan, former news editor of the Jewish Exponent, is an FAA Certificated Flight Instructor. E-mail him at: jerunyan@ gmail.com.your story.