Your Soul’s Secret of Secrets
Chanukah is the story of oil.
Despite the battles miraculously won by the weaker and
fewer Maccabees against the mightier and larger Syrian-Greek
army, the Talmud, in its description of the miracle of Chanukah,
concentrates solely on the miracle of the oil and virtually
ignores the military miracle. “What is Chanukah?”
asks the Talmud. “Over what miracle was it established?
When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary, they contaminated
all its oil. Then, when the Hasmonean Kingdom overpowered
and was victorious over them, they searched and found only
a single cruse of pure oil that was sealed with the seal
of the High Priest—enough to light the menorah for
a single day. A miracle occurred, and they lit the menorah
with this oil for eight days. The following year, they established
these [eight days] as days of festivity and praise and thanksgiving
We thus celebrate Chanukah
by commemorating the oil miracle and lighting the menorah for eight days,
preferably using olive oil because it is easily drawn into the wick, its light
burns clearly, and the miracle of Chanukah happened with olive oil.
Why the focus on oil?
One could argue that discovering the oil was incidental to the main miracle
of winning the battle against the enemy. Had that victory not taken place
the subsequent discovery of the cruse of oil would not have been possible.
Why then is the miracle of oil the defining feature of Chanukah, with no mention
of the battles won – unlike, for instance, Passover, when we commemorate and
recreate the victory over the Egyptians?
Chassidus explains that the essential miracle of Chanukah
was a spiritual victory. The Syrian-Greeks didn’t
want to physically annihilate the Jewish people (as Haman
did in the time of Purim); they wanted to kill their souls.
The Greeks were not opposed to Torah as a body of human
wisdom and mitzvoth as a set of ethical rules; they sought
to “make them forget Your Torah and make them
violate the decrees of Your will” – to divorce the
Torah and mitzvoth from its spiritual and Divine nature.
The battle was fought not for any material or political
end, but for the very soul of Judaism (see The
Transparent Body and The
Physics of Chanukah). Thus the Talmud defines
“What is Chanukah?” by its spiritual miracle—the discovery
of the pure, undefiled cruse of oil and the rekindling of
the divine light which emanated from the Holy Temple.
Even when the mighty materialistic
Syrians-Greeks desecrated all things sacred, even as all sources of pure light
(from pure olive oil) were gone, ultimately one crucible of purity remained,
and revived the soul. The powerful quality of light – even a minimal amount
– prevailed over the strongest forms of darkness.
This explains the significance
of the flames. But why specifically oil?
The Midrash offers the following parable in explaining the use of olive oil
for the Menorah in the Temple:
It is comparable to a king whose legions rebelled against
him. However, one of his legions remained faithful and did
not rebel. The king said that this legion that did not rebel,
from them I will take for my rulers and governors. So did
G-d say, This olive brought light to the world in the time
of Noah, as we see ‘the dove came...and it had an olive
branch in its mouth’ (Vayikra Rabba 31:10).
One commentary (Rabbi Dovid Luria known as the Radal) explains
that the corruption preceding the great flood did not affect
man alone, but also the animal and plant kingdoms. Different
animal species tried to interbreed; plants attempted to
intergraft. Only the olive branch resists all forms of grafting.
It thus it is considered the “legion that did not
rebel.” It remained pure. Because it remained faithful
to G-d, the olive was chosen to be the sign of rebirth and
renewal after the flood. It was chosen to be the source
for light in the holiest place in the world, and the source
of light for generations to come.
But what is it about olive oil that immunizes it against
corruptive forces? And how do we access its power?
The material nature of
every physical entity evolves from its spiritual root. An analysis of the
properties of oil can help illuminate its powerful spiritual significance.
The Talmud poses the following
question: If an impurity touches oil floating on wine, does it contaminate
the wine as well? Two opinions are offered: The Rabonon hold that oil is hydrophobic
by nature and is therefore not considered connected to the wine, thus only
the oil is contaminated, not the wine. Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri disagrees.
He holds that the oil is connected to the wine, and thus contaminates the
wine as well (Tevul Yom 2:5).
Their disagreement applies
to another law as well. On Shabbat we are prohibited from moving an object
from a private area into a public area (or vice versa). The prohibition requires
a two step process: lifting (akira) and placing (hanocho) –
lifting the object from its resting place and placing it down in another place.
The question is this: If oil is floating on top of wine, is it considered
resting on the wine and thus prohibited to lift and place elsewhere. Rabbi
Yochanan ben Nuri holds that the oil is connected to the wine, and thus is
resting upon it. The Rabonon disagree and argue that oil is not connected,
but completely separate from the wine. It is as if the oil is floating, and
thus not considered to be lifted off the wine (Shabbat 5b).
The final ruling (halacha)
follows the Rabonon, that the oil is completely separate from the wine.
The Rebbe Dovber (second Chabad Rebbe, son and successor
of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi) in his profound work “Imrei
Binah” (Shaar ha’Kriyat Shma ch. 52-56) wonders
what the basis of the argument is in the first place. “Isn’t
it a matter of empirical observation,” he asks, “whether
the two blend together or they remain completely separate.
We can test and see whether the oil and wine have mixed
together in some way – both in substance and in taste.
So, what defines the argument between the Rabonon and Rabbi
Yochanan ben Nuri?”
Rabbi Dovber explains
that the nature of oil can be understood only after we analyze olive oil’s
The soul consists of three dimensions: The conscious, the
unconscious, and the un-unconscious. The conscious divides
into the revealed biological, emotional and intellectual
faculties – corresponding to nefesh, ruach
and neshomo (the first three of the five names/levels
of the soul). The unconscious is chaya – the transcendent
dimension, which remains unrevealed, but can surface through
exerted effort. Finally – each soul contains the un-unconscious,
yechida, which defies any form of expression.
The un-unconscious always remains essentially unknowable.
It is the psychological parallel to the quantum-like state
of fundamental probability, at the heart of Heisenberg’s
uncertainty principle (see Beyond
Real You, The
What distinguishes the
level of the essential un-unconscious from the “regular” unconscious is that
the unconscious is hidden, but can be revealed. In Carl Jung’s words: “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you
will call it fate.” This may be true on the level of the unconscious, but
the level of the un-unconscious is fundamentally unrevealable.
Both are concealed, but the former is called “concealment
of substance,” or the “defined unconscious,”
and the other “concealment of no substance,”
or the “undefined unconscious.” An example of
the two is the difference between a white-hot coal and a
flint stone. The fire in the coal is hidden, but it exists
in the coal. All you need to do is fan the coal and the
flame will emerge. In a flint stone no physical fire exists.
However by striking it with force, you can release its spark
Power of Human Exertion).
These three dimensions – the conscious and the two
levels of the unconscious – are embodied in the difference
between bread, wine and oil: Bread (or water), conventional
food, manifests the revealed faculties. Wine, concealed
in grapes, reflects the unconscious – which is revealed
by even slight pressure on the grapes. Olive oil represents
the un-unconscious (which is much more locked in the olive,
and therefore requires much more pressure to release, than
wine in the grape). In the words of the Zohar: Wine is the
level of “secrets” (a secret that can be revealed);
oil is the level of the “secrets of secrets”
– so secret that it is hidden even from the secrets,
it is fundamentally secret and indefinable.
Oil itself also has two dimensions: One that interacts
with the unconscious “wine” state, and leaves
some impact on the unconscious. A higher level – the
essential “oil” un-unconscious that remains
detached and above all the levels it rests upon. [The paradox
of oil is quite obvious: On one hand oil saturates all solids
it comes in contact with. On the other hand, it rises and
remains above any liquid it comes in contact with (see also
Shemot Rabba 36:1. Ohr HaTorah Behaalotcho pp. 426)].
Rabbi Dovber explains
that the two opinions of Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri and the Rabonon, whether
oil is connected or disconnected to the wine beneath it, reflect the two dimensions
in oil: Rabbi Yochanan addresses the dimension of “oil” that comes in contact
with and affects the “wine.” The Rabonon discuss the essential “oil,” which
always remains not connected with the “wine.”
Now we can understand why oil plays such a primary role
in the Chanukah experience: Oil represents the ultimate,
essential soul connection to the Divine that is incorruptible
and untouched by any impurity. It rises and floats above
It therefore has the power
to transcend darkness – the materialistic challenge of the Greeks and their
defiling of the Holy Temple
and even the sacred oil. Like in “those days” so to today “at this time:”
Even when our conscious and unconscious faculties may be temporarily compromised,
one cruse of “pure oil” always remains, which is like a “pilot flame” that
gives us the power to reignite the unconscious and the conscious that may
have been extinguished (or concealed) for a while.
And the light that emerges from darkness is the strongest
light of all. As the Ramban writes (beginning of Parshat
Behaalotcho), that ‘these [Chanukah] flames will never
be extinguished’ (unlike the Temple
Menorah which ceased shining after
the Temple’s destruction).
Light that prevails after being challenged by darkness demonstrates
that it is a light that can never die.
Chanukah is the celebration
of oil – the oil within that lays in the deepest part of our souls – pure
and innocent, untouched and untainted by all of life’s experiences, even the
harshest ones. The pure oil of your soul floats above the din, which carries
your secret of secrets – the part of you that transcends all defined forms
of expression. The real you.
On all eight days of Chanukah, these lights are sacred,
and we are not permitted to make use of them—only
to look at them, in order to offer thanks and praise to
Your great Name for Your miracles, for Your wonders and
for Your salvations.
“We are not permitted
to make use of them” – because they are beyond and to remain untouched by human
needs, even our own. But we are allowed to look at them…
As we light the Chanukah
flames let us study these flames and listen to their story – the story of
our innermost lives, of our most intimate recesses of ours souls.
Chanukah tells the secret of secrets of your soul.
It’s comforting to know that despite all the darkness around
us, despite the pains and losses we endure, despite the
black night and the hostile streets – a quiet, little flame
remains lit, untouched, unrevealable – hovering above, barely
touching, yet firmly in touch with our regular lives.
This may be the most powerful
message that we will ever hear: Your soul has a secret. A secret of secrets.
Nothing, absolutely nothing, can touch, let alone hurt or diminish your soul’s
On Chanukah the secret
of your soul is revealed – the secret of all secrets.
On Chanukah you have the power to touch the untouchable, or better yet: to
be touched by the untouchable.
* * *
Question for the week: What lesson
or story do you learn from the Chanukah flames? What secret
of the soul can you see in their light?
a question for future weeks.