In our year long journey through the Biblical narrative text Jacob is preparing to meet his estranged brother. Fearing for his life he sends all his goods and even his wives and children before him across the River Yavoc. But Jacob remains behind. We know, from the written text that he ends up wrestling an angel, but why hasn’t he gone ahead? The Talmud (TB Hullin 31a) suggests he has gone back for some small flasks and suggests that this proves that righteous people don’t like to leave valuable property lying around, but I want to suggest a slightly different interpretation to explain why Jacob turns back. These were not just any old flasks. What follows is an (un)original Midrash I wrote on the cusp of Chanukah some time ago. It weaves together a number of elements in the written Torah and the classic oral Torah and, please God, it can help us arrive at Chanukah (first night next Friday, 11th December) suitably illuminated.
An (Un)Original Midrash – The Flask of Oil
Adam and Eve grabbed out at whatever they could reach as they were dragged from the Garden of Eden. Eventually, lost and alone in the wilderness, they opened their hands to see what reminders of paradise they had smuggled away. There wasn’t much; some seeds, some fruit and the first pair of tongs (Avot 5:2). They tilled, hoed and planted the seeds and waited for harvest. It was bitter, inedible. Eve tried pressing the fruit, which drew out the bitterness, but it was hardly tasty. She put the oil aside for safekeeping.
As the days passed into weeks Adam noticed the nights getting longer and the days shorter. He wailed, ‘This is the punishment for our sin. Darkness is overtaking the world and we are sliding back to the primordial state of darkness and void.’ (Avodah Zara 8a) Meanwhile Eve created a small lamp for the olive oil and during the darkest nights she would light the oil and she, her husband and children would sit in its light and the darkness no longer seemed so terrifying.
Generations passed and Eve passed the flask on to her descendents. And a great miracle happened; the oil never ran out.
Many years later Noah’s wife took one look at her husband’s craftwork and reached for the oil. The ark had been fully covered with pitch, inside and out and was totally dark. (Genesis Rabbah 31:11) The bats and the badgers were happy, but the rest of the animals refused to enter. So she lit the oil and she, her husband and children and all the (diurnal) animals would sit in its light and the darkness no longer seemed so terrifying.
Many years later the flask had been passed to Jacob. ‘Light it when you are most afraid,’ Rebecca counseled as she pressed the oil into his hand. And now Jacob was afraid. He had sent his wives, his children, his servants, all of his possessions across the river and he forgot the flask of oil. He turned back ‘for he had left behind some small jars’ (Hullin 91a) and, in darkness, he lit his lamp and wrestled the angel and the darkness no longer seemed so terrifying.
So goes the story of the oil.
It was the last remaining possession of the ‘woman of the wives of the sons of the prophets’ who didn’t understand its miraculous properties until Elisha told her to keep pouring oil from the flask, knowing it would last forever and that the revenue could pay off the creditor who had come to take her sons into slavery (2 Kings 4). Samuel used the oil to anoint Saul, the first King of Israel, and also to anoint David, his successor (I Sam. 10:1 & 16:3). It was used to light the everlasting light that would light up the sanctuary and the Temple. And always the oil brought comfort, in its light the darkness no longer seemed so terrifying.
When the Hasmoneans defeated the Greeks and re-entered the Temple they searched and could find only one flask of oil, and to the untrained eye it seemed as if there was only enough for one day’s lighting. (Shabbat 21b) But this was no ordinary oil, and of course it lasted.
And today, when we light our own Chanukiot, we remember all the great miracles bestowed upon on our ancestors and upon us. But perhaps the greatest miracle is the miracle of a flame. For when we sit in its light, the darkness no longer seems so terrifying.