The Olive Oil Paradigm: Tetzaveh
Tetzaveh: Exodus 27:20-30:10
You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of pressed olives for the light, to kindle an eternal light. Aaron and his sons shall set it up in the Tent of Meeting, outside the curtain that is over [the Ark of] the Pact, [to burn] from evening to morning before the Eternal. It shall be an eternal decree for the Israelites throughout their generations. [Exod. 27:20-21]
Thus we learn why in every synagogue, to this day, the Jewish people continues to kindle a flame, a Ner Tamid, an Eternal Light over the ark that houses the Torah. Our people has followed this biblical injunction for 3000 years, beginning with the Temple in Jerusalem and the kindling of the seven-branched Menorah; which is, initially, what these verses referred to. Though our rabbis would say that this commandment was given to the Israelites at Sinai in anticipation of the Temple being built later — since the Israelites had no way of acquiring olives in the desert, let alone the necessary equipment for extracting oil — many scholars agree that this passage was written, instead, at a time when the Temple was already standing and retroactively inserted into the narrative.
But why oil from olives? A commentary found in the Etz Hayim Torah explains that olive oil was easier to refine so as to be perfectly “’clear,’ or… free of dregs,” compared to other sources for oil commonly used at the time such as “sesame seed, flax, and animal fat.” [p. 503] Additionally, since biblical times, the olive branch has been a symbol of peace. Choosing olive oil to light the Great Menorah of the Temple imbued the daily ritual with deeper meaning and the intentionality to kindle energies of peace in the world. Interestingly, the reason for the olive branch to have historically been associated with peace, our commentator continues, is that “olive trees mature slowly, so only when there was an extended time of peace, with agriculture left undisturbed, could the olive tree produce its fruit.”
Beyond the practical or symbolic aspects of the text, the first verse of the portion speaks of our being individually commanded to bringing oil to the Temple, and that this oil needs to be “clear” or “pure.” The Etz Hayim commentator pays particular attention to the relational component between the people and the oil they are bringing as an offering. It is not just what the individual is bringing that needs to be pure, but the heart of the individual making the offering itself needs to be “uncontaminated by jealousy, selfishness, pride or greed.” Our inner states, our teachers are saying, impact the quality of what we are offering our world. It might not be that the olive oil itself is physically contaminated by our emotional states—though we hold a vision that nature and humanity are not two but rather inseparably intertwined and inter-vibrating—but that the nature of our offering becomes polluted when our heart is clouded or closed-off by the inner battles of our ego.
Our task, therefore, is to become increasingly mindful of how we show up in our world. We are inherently creative beings who—whether we want it or not—continuously bring our unique blend of olive oil to every moment we share. To be mindful means that we recognize the shadow as well as the light when it expresses through us. It means that we hold ourselves with compassion when we fall short of the “Pure Extra Virgin” impossible ideal, and that we know to take responsibility and make amends when needed. And when our offering mindfully includes all aspects of ourselves, then the essence, the pure oil of our being joins with others’ to kindle the Great Menorah of the Temple of Creation with energies of peace, and harmony.