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).
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?
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?
must first understand the critical role symbolism plays in Judaism (which is
defined by the keeping of the Torah).
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.
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).
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.
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)
must use this method to understand all commandments. Each commandment has
its own unique symbolism.
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.