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  • Rabbi Mordecai Finley

The Oil and The Lamp


Reflections on the Weekly Torah Portion - Miketz

One of the most beautiful aspects of the Jewish religion is the freedom for interpretation of our traditions. We are, in essence, a religion of practice, not theology. Our common practices bind us, so we are free to travel far in our theological and spiritual understandings of those practices. Both a rational Maimonidean and a Kabbalistic mystic light Chanukah candles. What those candles mean, however, differs greatly.

As you know, my proclivity is to focus on the inner life meaning of our traditions. In the Chasidic understanding of Chanukah, there is a focus on the oil of the lamp as being a metaphor for some dimension of the soul. One might say that the oil, representing a life force of the soul, seeks to bring itself out into the world. The world we live in is often hostile to the light, to love, justice, truth and beauty. The world we live in often is not a home for goodness and holiness. We have to light the wick to draw the oil upward.

In the Kabbalistic and Chasidic world, Chanukah represents the war between light and darkness. The tenacious oil, lasting much longer than it should, represents the force of the soul that yearns to bring light to the world.

There is a passage in the Sefat Emet, the name of the book of my favorite Chasidic master, that understands the darkness in an unusual way. In this passage, the darkness is understood as confusion.

The Sefat Emet, which means "The Language of Truth", focuses on truth as the core way to serve the Divine. Truth here is not easy to understand. It can range from understanding the truth of a situation, the truth of what is at stake. Truth can refer to an inner truth - being courageously honest with yourself. Truth can mean understanding that there are many competing truths in a given situation, and our obligation to finding the one that matters most.

For example, I might be working with a family, where one person is irascible, and functions at a pretty low level of anger and punitiveness. The other person has evolved away from pettiness, but finds that they must be the much more tolerant and understanding one. The tolerant one complains: it is not fair that my spouse is the angry and mean one, but I have to do most of the work. I say: that is true. It is not fair.

But it is also true that you are capable of the work, and your spouse is not. Which of the two truths you choose to focus on determines what kind of person you are to become. Stand on fairness, or act with wisdom.

When I hear people describe situations, from politics to the most intimate spiritual struggles, I hear that different levels of truth are experienced. The wise person can hone in on the core of the matter. The Sefat Emet says that there is something in the oil, the inner recesses of each human being, that is drawn toward the light of truth. The question is, how do we create fire that draws the truth up into our lives? We will look at this question this Shabbat of Chanukah, as well as other teachings from the Chasidic tradition.


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