January 28, 2023 |

The Miracle of Overflowing Oil

Twenty years ago on the 8th day of Chanukah a light was extinguished from the world. My Oma, my father’s mother, passed away. She was a real character. She had chutzpah and brilliance, warmth and humor.

Thanks to her chutzpah my father and his uncle and my grandfather were able to survive the Nazis as she helped them run away from the Nazis. There are many legends as to how she managed to survive but this is my favorite. My grandfather was a diamond dealer in Belgium. One time when the Nazis came to my Grandfather’s home looking for their diamonds, my grandmother had the chutzpah to make sandwiches and hide the diamonds in the sandwiches. The Nazis looked everywhere but could not find the diamonds which were sitting right there on the kitchen table. She even offered the Nazis some sandwiches to eat, but the Nazis came in and they couldn’t see the diamonds right in front of their eyes. All they saw were the sandwiches.

On this Shabbat which is her yahrtzeit I would like to dedicate some words of Torah in her memory.

My Oma, whose name was Lea Herzfeld, was a descendant of at least two great tzaddikim. She was a direct descendant of a famous tzaddik, the Hassidic Rebbe, Reb Elimelekh of Lizhensk (1717-1786, from his third wife). And she was also a relative of the author of the Imrei Noam, Rabbi Meir Horowitz of Dzikow who was a son-in-law of the Sanzer rebbe.

Reb Eliemelech was himself the third generation of Hassidic Rebbbes. He was a student of the Maggid of Mezeritch who was the primary student of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hassidut.

Reb Elimelech is known for being the first to bring Hassidut to Poland and being a driving force in the spread of Polish Hassidut. Some of his students became famous Hassidic teachers in their own merit, like the Chozeh of Lublin and the Koshnitzer Maggid. To this day Reb Elimelech’s grave in Lezhansk is visited by thousands of people on his yahrtzeit which is the 21st of Adar.

Reb Eliemelech is revered for his classic work, a commentary on the Torah called the Noam Elimelech. The Noam Elimelech is a very difficult work to understand because it focuses so much on the concept of a tzaddik, the idea that a righteous person has a special and unique relationship with Hashem.

Reb Eliemelech is also known and beloved for the many stories that circulate about him and his brother, Reb Zushya of Anipoli.

Just as an example, here is one of the many tales about Reb Eliemelekh and Reb Zushyah.

One time Rabbi Elimelech and Reb Zushya were renting a room in an inn. Every night, the anti-Semitic drunk peasants would come into their room and get their kicks out of beating the one who was sleeping closest to the fire, which was Reb Zushya. So Reb Eliemelch decided to switch with his brother so that he would be the one sleeping next to the fire and they would beat him instead of Reb Zushya. That night as the peasants came in they said, “Is it fair to always beat the one who sleeps near the fire? This time lets beat the other one?” And so, they beat Reb Zushya again! Reb Eliemelech taught that that we learn from this that everything is decreed from Hashem and we can not change our place in His plan!

Reb Eliemelech has a very special teaching about Chanukah that I would like to share with you along with a teaching of the Imrei Noam.

In order to understand the Noam Elimelech’s teaching about Chanukah we first must review a famous question of the Beis Yosef.

Rabbi Yosef Karo (1448-1575, Safed) asks a question in his encyclopedic work that is known as the Beis Yosef. This question has become known as “the Beis Yosef’s question.”

The Talmud in tractate Shabbat says that we celebrate Chanukah because after the Hasmoneans defeated the Yevanim, they “searched the Temple and were able to find only one flask of oil that contained the seal of the Kohen Gadol. There was only enough oil to last for one day. A miracle occurred and they lit it for eight days.”

So the Beis Yosef asks: “Why did they establish the holiday for 8 days? If there was enough oil to last for one day, then the miracle was only for 7 days, so why establish the holiday for 8 days instead of 7?”

The Beis Yosef himself gives three answers to this question which we will not discuss today. The Sefer Ner Lemeah records another 100 answers to this question. One of those answers is a suggestion of the Imrei Noam, a relative of my Oma.

The Imrei Noam writes that there are two different miracles regarding oil in the Jewish tradition. One is the miracle of Chanukah. But there is also a second miracle of oil.

In 2 Kings 4 we are told the story of Elisha the prophet and a certain, unnamed, woman who he helped. She has no money. Her sole possession is a single jug of oil. So he tells her: “Take all the pots of all your neighbors. Then take your pot of oil and pour it into all your friend’s pots.” So the woman took kelim reikim, empty vessels, and she kept pouring oil into to them. Miraculously the oil from this pot filled up all the pots that this woman was able to find. Imrei Noam explains that in this case the original pot was emptied out its oil and then miraculously the oil reappeared.

But he suggests that in the Chanukah story the miracle happened differently. When the oil was poured out of the flask on the first night, the oil in the flask did not decrease, but was miraculously immediately replaced; as the oil poured forth, new oil miraculously replaced it. Thus even on the first night of Chanukah there was a great miracle in that the flask of oil did not diminish even for a moment and for this reason we celebrate Chanukah for 8 nights.

So there are two miracles relating to oil. In once case, oil appeared in an empty jug. In the other case oil appeared in a full jug, and made sure that the jug always remained full of oil.

The first case symbolizes a miracle that comes when we are in distress; when our vessel is empty –keylim reikim—and we need the salvation of God. As we say in the special psalm for Chanukah, chiyatni miyardei bor, God lifted me out of a pit. We were in trouble and we needed help. So we turned to Hashem and Hashem lifted us up. This is the miracle that we often think of when we say, “We need a miracle.” If we are in distress, and we pray to Hashem, this is the kind of miracle we are hoping for. For someone who is sick, or desperate for financial support, this is the miracle they yearn for. When those people who were on the plane that recently survived on a crash in the Hudson River were praying for a miracle, this is the type of miracle they were praying for. Their jugs were empty and they needed to be rescued by Hashem.

But explains the Imrei Noam, the miracle of Chanukah was different and even greater. The miracle of Chanukah happened when the jug was full and so there was no need to ever be in distress in the first place. This is the miracle of having Hashem’s salvation come upon us when our cup is overflowing. These are the miracles we often don’t notice, but it is the miracle of the overflowing cup of oil. These are the unnoticed miracles that make up our daily lives.

It is amazing how people misunderstand the miracle of Chanukah. One columnist in the New York Times wrote last week, “Rabbis later added the lamp miracle to give God at least a bit part in the proceedings.” Oy! This shows a lack of a spiritual understanding of the holiday. I am sure the columnist will one day regret those words. Chanukah is not an historical holiday, but a spiritual holiday. The rabbis were the ones who canonized Chanukah as a religious holiday in the first place. So they are obviously the ones who taught us from the beginning what the focus of the holiday should be. It is not about a military victory, it is about the miracle of the oil.

Some people say, “Oh, the miracle of oil is such a minor miracle. Big deal, they found a little but of oil. Compared to the splitting of the sea, that is not even a footnote.”

But that is exactly the point of the Imrei Noam. The miracle of Chanukah’s oil is to remind us of the miraculous moments of our daily life and to appreciate Hashem when our cup overflows. We must not wait for our cup to be empty in order to turn to Hashem and be cognizant of His miracles. Chanukah reminds us to turn to him while our oil still overflows.

This is essentially the teaching of the Noam Elimelech as well. Many people wonder how Chanukah gets the name Chanukah. Some say it comes from the word lechanech, to dedicate, as in the fact that the Jewish people rededicated the altar or the Temple on this holiday, and made a chanukat habayit. Others say it means, chanu k’h, as in they rested or camped on the 25th day of Kislev.

But the Noam Eliemelech explains the matter differently. In his opinion, Chanukah comes from the word cheyn, meaning grace; i.e. on this holiday Hashem gave us His grace and His kindness.

And that is the essence of Chanukah to recognize the daily gift of cheyn that Hashem gives us in our life. To pause and be appreciative; and then to thank Hashem for the miracle of the overflowing cups of joy that Hashem gives us in our daily lives.

And if we do that then we will feel the presence of God everywhere and anywhere. As we learn from the following story of Reb Eliemelekh and Reb Zushya.

One time they were wandering around with a group of beggars in order to humble themselves and to inspire themselves to repent.

And so it happened that in their wanderings they were once falsely accused and thrown into jail by the anti-Semitic police.

Sitting in the jail, Reb Elimelech arose to daven minchah. Reb Zushyah looked at him and said, “You can’t daven minchah here.” “Why not,” asked Reb Elimelech.

Reb Zushya reminded him that in the jail cell there was a pail serving as a waste bucket and since prisoners had gone to the bathroom in the pail, it was now prohibited to pray in the same room.

Reb Elimelekh sat down and began to cry over the fact that he was now unable to pray.

Reb Zushya said to him, “Don’t cry over the fact that you can’t pray to Hashem. The same God that told you to pray when the room is clean, also told you not to pray when the room is unclean. So by not praying you are fulfilling a commandment of Hashem. So if you truly want to connect to Hashem at this time you should rejoice over the fact that He has now told you NOT to pray to Him.”

When Reb Eliemelekh heard this he began to laugh and smile. He said, “Reb Zushya, you are absolutely correct. We must rejoice over the fact that this is how Hashem tells us to serve Him.”

And so the two brothers arose and began to sing and dance over the fact that they were now performing the mitzvah of not praying where there is a waste pail.

When the prison guards heard the noise and saw them singing and dancing they asked another cell mate, “Why are these two dancing and laughing?” The other prisoner said, “They are dancing about the fact that there is a waste pail in their room.”

When the guard heard this he said, “We’ll see about that! And he immediately removed the waste pail from their cell.”

And so, immediately, Reb Elimelekh and Reb Zushya began to daven Mincha in a proper manner.

As I mentioned at the beginning, my Oma hid her diamonds in the sandwiches.

The valuable diamonds are hidden in the every day realities of life. Hanukkah is a holiday that reminds us that sometimes the real diamonds are hidden in our sandwiches, and in the mundane existence of our lives.

And so perhaps we can say that the smaller the miracle, the more we have to be thankful for.


Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

Joined: August 8, 2007

Shmuel is Rabbi of Ohev Sholom -- The National Synagogue, the oldest Orthodox synagogue in Washington, DC. His communal responsibilities include teaching classes, coordinating adult education, creating programs for the elderly,the youth, and the sick, and ministering to the pastoral needs of the...

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