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The Thing About Oil

The Thing About Oil

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The economics of oil strangely mirror the nature of oil itself. On one hand, the political and geo-economic machinations which cause the rise and fall of oil prices are beyond the understanding of the average citizen. On the other hand, we all are strongly affected by the decisions of the powers that be who set the price of a barrel of oil. The price of oil affects energy costs, which in turn affect the cost of basically every product on the market.

This is similar to oil itself: its chemical makeup causes it to rise above other fluids, but also utterly permeates substances which it touches. Make a paper or food wet, and it will dry out after a short while. Pour oil on it, and it will remain oily for good. Remember the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill and the incredible damage it caused? New Orleans has long been dry from Hurricane Katrina, but Prince William Sound is still feeling the effect of the oil spill disaster.

The holiday of Chanukah is completely oil-oriented. The miracle involved the Greeks’ unsuccessful attempt to defile all the oil in the Holy Temple, and the miraculous jug of oil which burned for eight days. We celebrate by lighting menorahs—preferably with oil—and eating oily foods such as latkes and doughnuts. What is the inner connection between Chanukah and this non-miscible fluid which transcends yet permeates?

An understanding of the Greeks’ objective and the Maccabean victory will allow us to understand why oil is so symbolic of the war, and an appropriate way to celebrate our victory.

What is the connection between Chanukah and this fluid which transcends yet permeates?

As opposed to the story of Purim, when our oppressors wished to physically annihilate our people, the Greeks did not long for our demise. They “merely” wanted us to abandon our obstinate loyalty to our “outdated” mitzvot, and assimilate into the progressive Greek culture. (We apologize if this argument sounds familiar and all too contemporary . . . we’re just reporting the historical facts!)

There were a fistful of Jews who refused to discard the mitzvot in favor of Hellenism. We owe these heroic people a debt of gratitude: if not for them, our nation would today be as extinct as Hellenism and the ancient Greeks.

What exactly is the nature of these mitzvot which triggered this intense battle?

Mitzvot are the directives which emanate from G‑d. Needless to say, directives which originate from a spiritual infinite being can be understood by us physical finite beings as much as an earthworm can grasp E = mc2. Yet incredibly—and much to the ire of the ancient Greeks—these ultra-transcendent mitzvot permeate every detail of our mundane lives, which they seemingly should transcend. Before, after, and while eating; before, after, and while sleeping; before, after, and while involved in business—the mitzvot affect every area of life.

The merging of the highest levels of divinity with mundane everyday life, a seemingly impossible phenomenon, is made possible by the fact that—to use Kabbalistic lingo—G‑d transcends transcendency. He can transcend or permeate, or be both simultaneously. Just like oil!

While munching on tasty oily latkes, let us be thankful to the fledgling Maccabee army who risked their life for the oil. It is to their credit that 2,200 years later we still have the ability to oil our life with mitzvot, thus infusing our humdrum existence with unimaginable holiness.

Rabbi Naftali Silberberg is a writer, editor and director of the curriculum department at the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute. Rabbi Silberberg resides in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife, Chaya Mushka, and their three children.
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ruth housman marshfield hills, ma December 11, 2012

Oil and Chanuka GELT Are we ready, for a new Chapter? It's interesting you bring up the Valdez oil spill, and its still reverberant terrible effects, because I used Exxon and the word Exonerate to make a point about reparations years ago, and also to make a point the other day, to my son, about the total alchemy of language, that we can do this. Oil of course comes out of the earth, as in both olive oil and petroleum oils. SOD is hidden in Hebrew and in English means, soil, which is a word that does contain OIL, if you look at the word itself. Our dreidel's letters spell out, A Miracle Happened Here. It just could be, another miracle is opening in the NOW, that is a story, a total story, that is in fact, the most amazing story ever told. The gears are moving, and they are well oiled. Passover gelt, as to gold coin, and the coin in coincidence itself, makes for story that is off the charts astounding and WILL sweep the world, a story that is entirely based in the Letters themselves. Certainly, for sure, about "change". Reply

Bob USA December 9, 2012

Sorry, but you seem to be confusing petroleum (i.e. literally rock oil) with olive oil. Olive oil is a renewable and man-made resource(except in the passover story of course) while petroleum is not. Reply

Tim Upham Tum Tum, WA December 8, 2012

Using Palestinian Olive Oil To Promote Peace During Hanukkah, it is symbolic to have foods deep fried in oil. So that is the reason why we have latkes, or I will be having bimuelos, to commemorate my Sephardic background. But they will be deep fried in Palestinian oil, to signify peace and coexistence between our people. Olive oil is not kosher, but parve, so it fits into Jewish dietary law. While the origins of Hanukkah came out of war, the continuation of Hanukkah will be promoting peace.
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Ted Mowery Indianapolis, IN via lubavitchindiana.com December 3, 2010

Growth of the Miracle (Noachide commentary) The thing that's striking me is how the miracle GREW GREATER then (with each passing day), and how it continues to grow even today and stand as a testament to how G-d's Torah will not perish, unlike the kingdoms and decrees of man.

I give thanks to Hashem for rescuing me from idolatry. Reply

C. Eliana Azoulay Denver, CO December 16, 2008

What's the Fuss Over Oil? I like the point you make in saying "the Greeks did not long for our demise. They "merely" wanted us to abandon our obstinate loyalty to our "outdated" mitzvot, and assimilate into the progressive Greek culture." This battle is never over. But we experience victory again, every year, as we remain obstinate and light the Chanukah candles once more, for all the world to see. Thank you for your article. Reply

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