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Q&A : Chanukah Oil – November 2010 – “Jewish Life” magazine

Chanukah is coming up – let’s delve into it a little bit deeper this year…

Well there is the idea of the little bit of oil that lasts a long time, a major theme of Chanuka, which in a sense encapsulates much about Jewish history – where time and again it looked like there was ‘just a little bit left’ for us. The idea of defying the odds.

You mean that elusive something that keeps us Jews going throughout history?

Yes. Let’s look at it this way. The Jews came into the Temple after recapturing it from the Greeks to rededicate it –the word Chanukah means to dedicate – and to purify the Temple after its desecration. To do this, we needed to light the Menorah and we needed oil to do this.

But was there some sort of national shortage of olive oil at the time?

There was enough olive oil around, of course there was, it just wasn’t pure. The oil had been defiled and had the halachic status of being ‘tameh’, impure.  After the victory in the war against the Greek Empire they only found one jar of pure oil, with the official seal on it, which was what is needed to light the Menorah in  the Temple. But in fact, the Gemorah says that if we have only impure oil, halachically we are allowed to use it!

So why didn’t they use it after the one jar of oil ran out?

Well it didn’t run out at all – because of the miracle. By the time it finished burning, they had already made new olive oil because of the miracle of it burning for eight days, so they actually never ran out. But the focal point of the miracle is actually the purity of the oil, rather than there being oil to rededicate the Temple.

So if halachically we would have been able to rededicate the Temple either way, why was the fact that we were able to do so with pure oil so significant?

And the whole point of the broader struggle going on between the Jewish people and the Greek Empire was the purity of Torah values, which the Greeks was threatening. It was saying that we could exist as the Jewish people and even have a Jewish state – but with Greek values. The Greeks didn’t destroy the Temple; they just defiled it, like the oil that was freely available. The Romans came in and burned the Temple to the ground. The Greeks on the other hand came in and didn’t burn the Temple down but rather they defiled it.

What is the importance of the difference in approach?

Essentially the Greeks were coming with a very different philosophy of the world to infiltrate Judaism and divert it off course. Make it less pure. And that is why the pure oil was so important -not from a Halachic point of view because they could have used the impure oil – but because it represented the purity of Jewish values, which is what the Chanukah struggle was really about –Torah and Torah values.

How so?

G-d’s Torah is the fundamental source of light in our lives. It reveals G-d’s wisdom, giving us energy, inspiration, and vitality, informing us and guiding us. But it will only do that if it is pure. When Torah is pure, it brings light, providing more light than one would ever have thought possible. If we want light and energy in our lives then we need to find it through Torah, but only in its purest form. And we need to go back, as a community and as individuals, to that pureness of Torah. Of learning it, of keeping it, of living it. Because that is the key to sustaining us as a people.

Why is the purity of Torah so paramount in our lives – surely whatever we can get out of the Torah is good enough?

If Torah is pure, points out Rav Aharon Kotler, it lasts. It can never be defeated. If it is impure, it can be depleted. He was at the forefront of the rebuilding of the Yeshiva movement after the Holocaust when the yeshivas were destroyed in Europe. And the conventional wisdom in the late 1940’s and 1950’s in America was that Torah-True Judaism was finished, and the only way Judaism was going to survive would be for us to dilute it to be more compatible with Western culture. But he was at the forefront of re-establishing yeshivas in line with the pure Torah that was taught in Lithuania and Eastern Europe. And today, over 60 years down the line, we see that all of those movements and ideologies that try to dilute or change the Torah are rapidly disappearing, through assimilation, and  that the only for of Judaism that is thriving throughout the world is Torah-authentic Judaism.

What do you mean by ‘pure’ – how can Torah be warped?

Sometimes people approach Judaism and the Torah with their own agendas. They take their own preconceived ideas, force them onto the Torah, and then make this part of their own personal philosophy. It’s just using Torah for their own devices, without taking it in its entirety and in its purest form.

You’ve made the point on an intellectual basis – can you explain it more practically?

It’s about returning to proper Torah learning, so that we learn how to think like Jews. Judaism is about action, that is true and we can’t get away from the mitzvot and observances we have to do. But the view of the Talmud is that the source of living like a Jew is to think like a Jew.

How do we think like a Jew?

Thinking like a Jew is dependant on Torah learning and going deeper to actually understand what it means. Because what is the Torah? It is the way G-d looks at the world. So  practically that means that there are Torah ideas on how to understand and approach everything in life – marriage and parenting, business and making money, spending money and giving charity, character development and psychological well-being, politics and government, medicine andscience, history and human civilization. On my website, ww1.chiefrabbi.co.za, I feature the famous statement from the Mishnah – ‘Turn it over and over for everything is in it’, because what I am trying to get across here as well as on my website is that Torah has a framework of values, principles and ideas for all the diverse issues in life.  As the Midrash teaches, Hashem looked into the Torah and created the world.  Everything that is in our world has its place in the framework of Torah ideas.  It’s all about education and Torah learning. 

How can we make sure we don’t warp the Torah?

To answer this let’s look at the Menorah. Today when we light Chanuka candles we use a Chanukiah which has eight branches, referring to the eight days of the miracle. But the Menorah in the Temple had seven branches – one central branch with six that came out if it, and the flames of these six were tilted inwards towards the centre one. Rabbi Samson Hirsch writes that the six branches represent the six branches of general wisdom in the world, and all wisdom and understanding in the world has to come out of and point back to the central branch of wisdom that is Hashem and the Torah. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch was a very eloquent spokesman for understanding Torah on it’s own terms, without distorting it through our preconceived ideas.

We have to keep asking ourselves: Is this true?  What is Hashem telling me – in the Chumash, Mishnah, Gemorah – what is that message?  Understand it on its own terms. We need to get out of thinking along the lines of conventional wisdom and the pervasive Western based entertainment culture of how to live and the purpose of life. Each one of us needs to ask ourselves : “Am I living my life in accordance with true and pure Torah values?”

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