Although the Egyptians discovered how to fashion candles of beeswax 4000 years ago, in Eretz Yisrael during the biblical period clay oil lamps and olive oil provided illumination. Antiquities shops throughout Israel today offer such lamps for sale and many people I know display them in their homes. No doubt, every home in ancient Israel sported such lamps and, as Torah tells us, the menorah in the Mishkan (wilderness Tabernacle) was composed of seven oil lamps.
Our Torah portion begins:
You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of crushed olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly. (Ex. 27:20)The eternally burning lamp stand is the model for the Ner Tamid (eternal light) that hangs above the ark of every synagogue, symbolizing our eternal covenant with God and reminding us that every synagogue is a mikdash m’at (a Mishkan in miniature).
The verse quoted above tells us that clear oil of crushed olives was required for lightning the menorah. Why does Torah bother with these details? Would we not have known that oil is made by crushing olives and must be clear and pure?
Concerning the requirement for clear, refined oil to fuel the menorah, traditional commentators tell us this teaches that just as the oil must not be contaminated, neither should we allow ourselves to be contaminated by selfishness, pride, and avarice. We should seek to refine ourselves through patience, chesed (loving kindness), and tzedakah (righteousness).
Midrash Exodus Rabbah 36:1 learns another lesson from the clear, refined olive oil about preserving a strong Jewish identity: “Even as the oil of the olive does not mix with other liquids with which it comes into contact, so has the people Israel kept its own identity when it came into contact with other nations.” The best way to preserve our unique values, worldview, and sacred texts is to cultivate in ourselves and in our children a strong and vibrant Jewish identity.
What about the crushed olives? Rashi interprets these words katit l’ma-or v’lo katit la’menuchot (literally: “for the menorah and not for the meal offering”). Rashi’s words have been understood (out of context) to be a psychological message: “crushed for light, and not for depression.” Life deals crushing blows to us. Sometimes these crushing blows affect us as individuals. Certainly loss and death are the most staggering. At many times in history, we as a people experienced crushing blows. Yet our response – Rashi tells us – should be to look for the light, and to be a light to others. The response to darkness is to light a candle. The response to loss is love. The response to despair is to kindle hope.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman