The kindling of a menorah during the eight days of Chanukah commemorates an ancient miracle that occurred in our Jerusalem Holy Temple, 2144 years ago. Following the victory of the Jews over their Greek oppressors who desecrated the Temple, a little cruise of unsoiled olive oil found in the Temple lasted and burned for eight days, till the Jews managed to purchase new pure oil for the daily kindling of the Temple candelabra. To commemorate this display of Divine graciousness in a world usually enslaved to nature, the leaders of Israel instituted the eight-day holiday of Chanukah, in which we kindle a menorah each night.
In that sense, oil embodies the essence of the Chanukah experience and serves as the main focus of the festival of lights. Indeed, in many a Jewish household, the Chanukah lamps consist of wicks dipped in olive oil, similar to the Temple Menorah lamps. On this festival, it is also the custom to eat “latkes,” pan cakes fried and dipped in oil.
Why do we, living more then two millennia after the original Chanukah story, celebrate the event of an increase in olive oil? Why create an entire holiday that is based on oil?
The Kabbalah of Oil
Olive oil contains four qualities worth reflecting upon, particularly as they seem to conflict with each other.
A) Olive oil is produced by crushing and beating ripe olives. The olive must be severely humbled and pressed in order to emit its oil.
B) Olive Oil, as many other oils extracted from minerals, plants and animals, penetrates solid substances deeply. We all know how difficult it is to remove the oily grease that makes its way into our fingers or our clothes. Various oils have been used as remedies for bodily wounds and diseases, since oil penetrates the body far beyond its external tissue.
C) Oil does not mix with other liquids. When you attempt to mix, say, oil with water, the oil will remain distinct and will not dissolve in the water.
D) Not only will oil not mix and become dissolved in other liquids, rather staying in place or sinking downward, but furthermore, the oil will rise, floating atop the other liquids.
From spiritual to physical
Now, in Jewish Mysticism, all physical properties and qualities of any existing object are seen as continuums of their metaphysical properties. Every object originates in the realm of the spirit, embodied by a particular sublime energy. Then the energy evolves to assume a physical reincarnation, giving rise to particular physical characteristics that mirror their spiritual source.
[This, parenthetically, constitutes an extremely rich component of Judaism. From the vantage point of Torah, the truths of science, physics, chemistry, biology etc. and the truths of philosophy, spirituality and psychology are merged together in a perfect mosaic, since the physical evolves from the spiritual.]
The same principle applies to oil as well. The four above-mentioned qualities displayed in oil are essentially a physical manifestation of four spiritual and psychological attributes from where oil originates. They, in turn, evolve and assume the four physical forms of expression outlined above.
Four cardinal principles
Oil, naturally, produces light. If a human being wishes to become like oil, a source of light for himself, his family, his community and his world, he must learn to cultivate the four properties characterizing oil.
A) The crushing and pressing of the olives represents the notion of humbleness, the antithesis of arrogance and self-inflation.
B) The direct result of this "pressing" is your ability to "become" oil and penetrate others deeply. When you're haughty and pompous (either because of too much self-confidence or because of too little self-confidence), you are incapable of sharing yourself with others or allowing them to share themselves with you in a real and meaningful way. You are too afraid to let your walls down and let anybody even pick in, and you certainly are incapable of effecting other people's hearts and souls profoundly. If you are filled with your self you have no space in your life for the other and you cannot build a genuine relationship with the other outside of you.
When you “crush” yourself a bit, you can become open to another persons depth, entering into their life, and allowing them to enter into your life.
C) Yet, a genuine relationship should not cause either party to lose their individual identity and to dissolve in the personality of the other. The beauty and magic of a relationship lay precisely in the fact that two distinct individuals choose to share themselves with each other without dissolving into each other. Just like oil, you know how to feel and experience another human being deeply, while still not becoming consumed and nullified by the other's identity.
The master Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk once remarked: "If I am I because you are you and you are you because I am I, I am not I and you are not you; but if I am I because I am I and you are you because you are you, then I am and you are. Now we can begin to schmooz."
D) This threefold process of crushing yourself, bonding with others and at the same time remaining distinct - allows you to gain a true appreciation of your unique individual place in G-d's world. In a mature, sensitive and authentic way you come to realize that in some small fashion you own something that nobody else in the history of humanity ever had or ever will have. Just like oil, you, too, rise to your own top.
This is also one of the reasons why olive oil was used for anointing the kings of Israel. To ensure that the king’s gaining a position of power and going to the top does not cause him to become abusive or manipulative, we anoint him with oil, imbuing him with the lesson that true power must come with true humility.
Judaism, particularly its festival of Chanukah, came to teach ordinary human beings how to build lives that would reflect the paradoxical qualities of oil. If we wish to light up our lives and the world around us with the fires of goodness, morality and G-dliness, we ought to take a good and deep look at the olive oil in our Menorahs (1).
1) This essay is based on a letter by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, published in Shaarei Hamoadim -- Chanukah, pp. 172-3.