A woman, the wife of one of the prophets, cried out to Elisha: “My husband, your servant, has died . . . and the creditor has come to take my two sons as slaves.”

Said Elisha to her: “. . . Tell me, what have you in your home?” And she answered: “Your maidservant has nothing in the house but a cruse of oil.”

Said [Elisha]: “Go, borrow vessels . . . from all your neighbors; empty vessels, only that they not be few. . . . And pour [of your oil] into these vessels . . .” (II Kings 4:1–4; from the haftorah for Parshat Vayeira)

I want to paint a picture. I don’t have any specific ideas, but I want to paint. I want to write a story. I don’t know what to write, but I feel that I must. So I stand at my easel, canvas, oils and brushes at the ready. Or I sit before my computer and gaze at the screen.

Once upon a time . . . I type a few words. And suddenly a stream. Then a river. A torrent of words rushing from somewhere deep within me. Inspiration.

I unzip the velvet bag that holds my tefillin, remove the black leather box and bind it to my arm. I reach into my pocket, dig out a coin and insert it into the slot of the charity box. My movements are sluggish. A thousand times I have done this. Thousands more I will. My actions seem forced and automatic. I do these things because G‑d has commanded me to, because I recognize that this constitutes my mission and purpose in life. But the experience feels meaningless.

I am not a robot. I feel things, sometimes deeply. I feel hurt, anger, love and elation. But I do not feel like putting on tefillin.

In the fourth chapter of the second book of Kings, we read of the “miracle of the cruse of oil” performed by the prophet Elisha. An impoverished widow sought the help of Elisha, crying that her debtors are about to take her two children as slaves, and all she possesses is a single cruse of oil. The prophet tells her to borrow as many empty vessels as she can, and to proceed to fill them with oil from her cruse. Miraculously, the oil keeps on flowing as long as there are vessels to receive it.

Chassidic teaching explains the deeper significance of the widow’s quandary and Elisha’s advice:

A woman, the wife of one of the prophets, cried out to Elisha—The soul of fire1 calls out to G‑d:

“My husband, your servant, has died . . .”—My service of You is lifeless, devoid of inspiration. I yearn to fill my deeds with meaning and significance . . .

“. . . and the creditor has come to take my two sons as slaves”—but my animalistic inclinations are monopolizing my emotions. They want me to love the present and revere the temporal. They cloud my vision of Your all-pervading, eternal truth.

Said Elisha to her: “What do you have in your home?”—G‑d answers, “What is left of your soul that it can call its own?”

And she answered: “Your maidservant has nothing in the house, save a small cruse of oil.”—“Nothing but the pristine essence of my soul, the ‘small cruse of oil’ at her core that remains forever unsullied by the mundanities of life.”

Said [Elisha]: “Borrow vessels from your neighbors; empty vessels, only that they not be few . . .”—Act. Continue to do positive and G‑dly deeds, many positive and G‑dly deeds, even if they seem “borrowed” and empty to you. Remember, deeds are vessels, ready recipients for content and fulfillment . . .

“. . . and pour [of your oil] into these vessels . . .”—The more vessels you acquire, the more your “oil” will flow from its source and fill your actions with meaning and significance. Without the vessel of deed, there is nothing to provoke the oil of inspiration. Ultimately, if you persist in doing what you know to be just and right, your divine essence will fill your every “empty vessel.”