September 24, 2023 |

Got Oil?

My son has a funny and slightly troubling habit of sneaking out of his room after getting tucked in -- funny because he's so insistent on trying, and slightly troubling because he's only 2 and a half. Last night I found him playing at the top of the stairs (having gotten through the child-proof gate on his room), and told him to go back to his room. Why? Because he might fall asleep, fall down, the stairs, and get hurt. He understood that much and went back to his room shortly thereafter, but I was left with an uncomfortable feeling. Had I just taken an impressionable toddler who thought he could do anything, and added my voice to the chorus of those who will tell him throughout his life that something is impossible?

I believe that the responsible parent at this point says, “Yes, that’s exactly what you did, and with good reason.” And perhaps at two years old, that’s the right answer. We all walk around with very clear walls in our minds, which we assume are fixed boundaries that we are not able to cross. In large part, that’s part of a healthy psyche, and the absence of those walls leads, in the extreme, to psychosis and sociopathy, in which there are no rules, no accountability, and any act is possible at any time.

My own interest is in the category of things that we perceive as being impossible simply because “it’s not done”, or “it hasn’t been done before”, and yet at some point someone goes out and does it, at which point, well, it’s not impossible anymore. Winning the lottery twice is an example. Surviving an illness long beyond the horizon allowed by doctors. Becoming fluent in a new language as an adult. Or this week: Taking a stand against a world power and emerging independent.

The story of Chanukah is a triumph of the weak over the strong, the few over the many. Had Matityahu or the other leaders of the time taken a poll, consulted world history books, read the news – the outlook would not have been good. Someone predicting the fate of the Judean uprising against the Greeks based on precedent would not have given them good odds. And yet they made a decision to try, to stand up against their physical and religious oppressor, as well as the ever-present mental oppressor in each of our minds that explains why whatever it is you want to do, can’t be done.

There is a funny habit I have, usually Friday night, of trying to eyeball the minimum sized container needed to hold food that gets put away after the meal. It sounds silly, but it does save space in the refrigerator and provide something to laugh about when we’re putting away Shabbat leftovers… but be that as it may, here’s my secret: Look for a container that looks too small to hold the food, and then pour it in. Nine times out of ten, it will just fit. And so I call this an exercise in optimism – look for a fit that seems impossible, try anyway, and watch it work out.

On some level, it is thus fitting that Chanukah always coincides with the parshiot dealing with the story of Joseph, the archetypal rags to riches story. Surely as a servant for Potiphar, Joseph must have been aware of the clear class difference between a prince and a servant! Wouldn’t everyone in the prison with him have confirmed that this was the end of the line? And yet you see again and again the example of what one friend of mine and I called “The Yosef Effect” – or in the language of parshat Shemot, “ka’asher ya’anu oto, ken yirbeh vechen yifrotz” -- At the very same time the nation was oppressed, so it grew and spread out. Ignore those who tell you that you can’t, that prisoners can’t become princes and slaves can’t subdue their masters. The impossible is such only until a Joseph or a Matityahu tries it, and then watch it go from a long shot to a case study.

“In those days, at this time”, the Jews who had just accomplished the impossible returned to the Temple and found what looked like enough oil for one day. But these were people who had just gained independence from the Greeks! Rather than decide a priori that there wasn’t enough oil, I like to think that they just took it one day at a time. It didn’t LOOK like there was enough, but hey, let’s try. So day after day they lit the candles, each time kind of expecting to run out, but there was always a little more than they thought. This went on long enough to get replacement oil, but I think the symbolism of trying day by day, rather than letting an up-front judgment cause inaction, was powerful enough to turn the oil lamp into THE symbol of the holiday.

May we all light one more candle this year than we thought we’d be able to.


Jack Kustanowitz

Joined: July 15, 2007

Jack is an Internet professional living in Silver Spring, MD. He is a proud alum of the Frisch School in Paramus, NJ as well as Boston University, where he was active at BU Hillel.

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