Recall Golda’s famous quip, “Why did God bring us to the only place in the Middle East that doesn’t have oil?” Let’s think about that for a moment. Think Hanukkah.
No other holiday or week is dominated by such an oil-slick motif as Hanukkah. The menorah is lit with oil, as per the Talmud. The week’s menu consists of latkes and sufganiot (doughnuts), all soaked, saturated, and suffused with oil. There is, I believe, a significant insight in play here, but first let’s recall the basic story.
In 163 B.C.E, after a few years of guerrilla warfare against the Syrian Greeks, the Jews took back their temple in Jerusalem. They discovered, according to the Talmud’s account, that there was only one vessel of pure olive oil with the seal of the High Priest still intact. Pure olive oil was needed to light the Temple’s menorah daily, yet this vessel of found oil only contained enough to light the menorah for one day. In the words of the Talmud, “na’asah bo neis,” a miracle occurred and the menorah burned continuously for eight days. I can’t help but think of the words of Prime Minister David Ben Gurion: “To be a realist in the Middle East you have to believe in miracles!”
The following year, the Sages of that period declared a holiday that would be observed for eight days. The main expression of the theme and motif of these days would be the kindling of a menorah, preferably with olive oil as its source.
What was the agenda of the Greeks, as understood by the Sages of that era? The Greeks were not interested in destroying the Jews of their day. They simply wanted to dilute their Jewish ways. They were not interested in homicide as much as homogenizing the Jews. We should all speak alike, dress alike, and act alike, went the argument, and we should all worship alike.
The Jews stood up with defiance and dignity for their difference. The rabbis of the Talmud are more impressed with this than with the stunning military victories that gave autonomy to the Jews of Jerusalem and the environs.
Oil is a substance that, when intermingled with other liquids, does not become absorbed. It retains its identity and character. Dare I use a contemporary and provocative term? Oil is a substance that is not given to assimilation.
There is an embedded truth here. The word in Hebrew for “the oil” is Hashemen (inav), Rearrange the letters and it spells the word, neshama (vnab), or soul, and sh’moneh (vbna), or eight. The rabbis, in their wit and wisdom, ever the provocateurs and pedagogues, sought to have this message burned in our psyche.
For eight days, we will perform a mitzvah act highlighting the Jewish soul and unique Jewish spiritual way with a substance that itself struggles to retain its autonomy, character, and identity. Genius.
I find it encouraging that in every survey one reads regarding Jewish practice and ritual observance, the lighting of the Hanukkah menorah and the celebration of Hanukkah are the most prevalent and widely practiced rituals of all.
Reserving the right to be different was then, even as now, our birthright. This notion of the “dignity of difference,” to borrow Professor Sacks’s title, was then, even as now, a great gift of the Jewish people to the world. By being stubborn and sincere in our faith commitments, by savoring the unique blend of our “oil,” so to speak, we taught others that it is also their right and obligation to do the same.
Who said that God brought us to a place without oil?
Rabbi David L. Gutterman is rabbi of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, a member of the UJC Rabbinic Cabinet, and executive director of the VAAD: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.