D'var Torah by Rabbi Jay Spero



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This week’s portion starts off with this command: “Now you shall command the Children of Israel that they shall take for you pure pressed olive oil for illumination, to kindle the lamp continually” (Ex. Ch.27 V.20).

There are two things which need to be understood here. Generally, why does Judaism place such an emphasis on ritual? Why are there measurements and all other sorts of specifications for every mitsva in the Torah? Why, for example, in this case, must the olive oil come only from the first pressing?

And why isn’t it enough to light the Menorah, be it with candles or any type of oil? Specifically, what is so special about olive oil?

We must first understand the critical role symbolism plays in Judaism (which is defined by the keeping of the Torah).

Rabbi Shamshon Raphael Hirsch (19th century German Rabbi) explains that symbolism is used all the time. For example, when hearing sad news, a person will display grief. His grief is not him, rather it is a symbol for how he feels. When a person greets a long lost friend and cries tears of joy, these tears symbolize how he feels at that particular moment. Even the words we use symbolize what we feel. When we want to share a story with a friend, the words are only a means in which to articulate the story.

The next level of symbolism is using physical acts as symbols. For example when a person is overjoyed to see his friend, he gives him a hug. The level following this is using external physical objects as symbols which impart knowledge. For example, each state has its own symbol which is meant to conjure up images that define the state (New York uses the Statue of liberty which symbolizes freedom). 

So in essence, symbolism is necessary because human nature works in such a way that our words and actions are used to express or symbolize our feelings. And symbolism in Judaism uses our human nature in the exact same way: it takes an idea which is already known to us, and either through visual (such as the way in which the Tabernacle was built) or physical (lighting Shabbos candles) expression reinforces this idea.

What was unique about olive oil? The Midrash Rabbah (written during the same time as the Talmud; 200 in the common era) states there are many similarities between olive oil and the Jewish people: olive oil only comes after the olive is pressed. So too the Jewish people have only reached their potential (to be a light unto the nations) through exile (in which we suffered or were “pressed”). Most liquids blend into one another losing their identity; olive oil always remains by itself, much like the Jewish people have never “blended” into the other nations. Olive oil always rises to the top. So too if the Jewish people follow the will of G-d, they will rise to the (spiritual) top.

We must use this method to understand all commandments. Each commandment has its own unique symbolism.

We must open our eyes and our hearts to take notice of the symbolism that is all around us and use it to become better people.

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