The Inner Search for Pure Oil

Sarah Yehudit Schneider  

Among the various categories of mitzvot are those that commemorate significant moments in our history.  Everyone knows that each year when the date comes round that marks that event spheres align, channels open, and we experience, here, below, a watershed of lights and spiritual resources related to that original event….Pesach, Shavuot…each chag brings its own special gifts.

So now, as Chanukah approaches, we are trying to prepare ourselves to receive its particular bounty.  It helps to know what we’re looking for.  If we do, then we can harness the moment as a powerful tool of personal and collective transformation. For this reason Chazal advise us to begin studying about each chag a month before it arrives.

There are many teachings related to Chanukah and many spiritual resources available in those eight days that we can channel into our own life’s work.

  • We can draw courage from the fearless self-sacrifice of the Chashmonaim to defend the dignity of G-d and Torah.
  • From their struggle against assimilation we can draw siata d’Shemaya to support our own efforts to resist the powerful tug of the great melting pot and to hold strong to our Jewish heritage.

I want to focus first on a particularly beautiful teaching by the Baal Shem Tov that is  brought by the Chernobler Rebbe in his famous sefer Meor Einayim.

There he explains that the primary miracle of Chanukha, at least as far as we commemorate, is the miracle of the oil. Everyone knows that after the macabee’s victory over the Greeks they liberated the Temple and scoured the storage cellars and sanctuary for pure oil that had survived the Greek rampage.  The Greeks attempted to destroy everything in sight.  It was a gesture of contempt.  They intentionally trashed what the Jews held most dear.  They contaminated the holy oils by mixing them with the pigs blood that they had sacrificed on the altar.  Finally the macabbees found one vial sealed with the insignia of the kohen gadol, enough to keep the menorah burning for one day and yet it burned for eight.  This we all know well.

The Chernobler translates this into psychological terms, based on the association that Chazal make between oil (shemen) and chokmah (wisdom and intellect).  The gemara in menachot says:  מתוך שרגילין בשמן זית חכמה מצויה בהן.  Referring to Takoa, a city whose primary industry was producing olive oil, the Talmud observes: “Because they consumed a lot of olive oil, they were a community known for their wisdom.”  Similarly the anointing oil poured over the head of a king, or priest represents a mind/brain that is overflowing with wisdom.

The Chernobler explains that oil is used because it has the special property of absorbing the flavor and scents of whatever it associates with.  The first step in making perfumes is to extract the scent of the flower or spice into an oil.  And then it becomes possible to distil it further into a perfume.  This property of oil is for better or worse.  In the course of acquiring wisdom, we draw from different sources, and much of the wisdom we absorb is acquired from our conversations, interactions, and observations of the world.  But in the process, one also absorbs contaminants.

The Chernobler explores what it means for us that the Greeks defiled all the Temple’s holy oils except for one vial.  He explains that our chokmot are contaminated.  Our world view, our sense of truth, our vision of perfection, our vision of what’s possible…all this is tainted by our long years of exile and association with foreign cultures.  Our oils, our brains are contaminated.

And it’s a problem, says he, both for those who try to shut out secular culture and for those who engage with it.  When Adam and Chava ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, all of the souls in creation were exiled from Gan Eden and became impurified.  And consequently, the contaminations are not just “out there” they are also in here.  We all carry the nations inside us.  Even if we’ve never read a novel or watched TV.  Even if we’ve never seen a non Jew…the nations are inside us.

And so, we too, like the macabees, are constantly struggling to find the pure shemen, to identify the voice inside that speaks a clean truth.  The pintilla yid whose advise is trustworthy.  We’re all trying to find the place, the voice that is just simply, quietly, and reliably true…the still small voice.

There is no question that all of us here want to choose good and serve G-d and contribute our share to the six millenium project of tikun olam.  But its often so hard to know, in the moment, what option is really the high road.  We have to balance so many complicated and contradictory factors. For example:

  • To be on a spiritual path means to push one’s boundaries and yet our physical and psychological health requires us to assert them, and sometimes even stubbornly.
  • Some children need tight reins others need loose ones.
  • At what point is the nurturing of individuality a holy and obligatory task. HaShem gives us a soul and we are its midwife and caretaker.  We have to figure out what its beauty is and bring it out into the world.  It’s our job, if we don’t do it nobody will.  We are responsible for this as much as we are responsible for nurturing the souls of spouses and children.  And yet, at what point is our assertion of individuality a self-indulgence.

Our days are filled with questions like these.  Big ones, small ones.  And even if we have a Rav or mashpia/mentor to give us guidelines. On a moment by moment basis we’re on our own, and have only our instincts and intuitions to rely upon.

  1. Tsadok HaKohen says this precisely is the gift of chanukha. When the chashmonaim found a pure vial of undefiled oil and relit the menorah, our own inner voice, our still small pure and holy voice got strengthened forever by their act. And so each year, when chanukha come round it gets stronger still.

And so chanukha becomes the time to work on developing our intuitions, to pray for them, and to give some thought to how to consistently recognize which of the voices inside us is the one to follow.

I want to close by suggesting some ways to work with the question:

  • Its always good to have a role model and a mentor/mashpia who you can speak with about things that come up and receive guidance and advice and daas torah. The point is to apprentice yourself to them and absorb their wisdom into your self so that your own intuitions become more refined and your instinctive and reflexive response to the world begins to change and rectify.  The idea is to eventually stand on your own, but with their wisdom inside you.  Not be overly dependent but consult when appropriate.
  • Pay attention to the different types of questions that come up and put them into categories. You’ll soon see that in certain areas your intuitions are nearly 100% reliable and in other areas they’re no better than flipping a coin.  For example your instincts about children might be great, whereas your impulses around finances terrible or vice versa.  Or even with one child and not another.  The point is that people get intimidated, spooked out, when they trust an intuition and it led them astray and they throw out the baby with the bath-water.  Identify the areas were your intuitions are trustworthy and trust them.  Work on the other areas and seek additional input when those kinds of questions come up.
  • Pray. R. Tsadok discussed the dilemma of on one hand needing to live a heart centered life, and yet, at the same time having a heart that isn’t completely trustworthy, because of these contaminated oils inside, these unrectified instincts and world views.  We can’t live by our heart, and we can’t not live by our heart. He suggests a prayer mantra to hold in one’s heart when making difficult decisions.  Lev tahor…

Bless us to receive the holy lights of chanukha into the deepest depths of our soul, igniting the pack shem tahor (the vial of pure oil) and giving it voice and strength.  As individuals, communities and members of the planet we should learn to discern the voice of truth as it speaks within and to act in accordance with its advice.  Lev tahor bara…

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