A Little Bit of Oil Can Go a Long Way: How Jews Defeat Defeatism

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Would you set out on an important road trip if you only had enough gas for the first 20 miles and no forseeable way of filling your car up for a week? If you were a Maccabee you would. I recently started wondering why the Jews decided to light the menorah with the paltry sum of oil they found. Why bother lighting an eternal light that you know you can’t keep burning? Why not just wait a week until you have enough oil to do the mitzvah properly?

Because when the chance to fulfill a mitzvah comes up, we’re supposed to jump on it, even if it can’t always be done perfectly. So often in life, we miss out on wonderful opportunities because the conditions surrounding them aren’t ideal. Only problem is, if you wait around for the perfect scenario to come about, you may end up waiting indefinitely. Perhaps one of the reasons the Maccabees weren’t defeated is because they weren’t defeatists.

They gave all they had when it came to the war even though their chances of winning were impossible. They jumped on the opportunity to rekindle the menorah even though they knew their resources were insufficient. Then they let go and relied on God for the rest. The story of Chanukah is remarkable because God did come through in those two instances (the oil and the war) and repaid the efforts of the Maccabees with miracles, but truth be told, life doesn’t always work out so well.

So why start a task if there’s a good chance that it will get derailed along the way by events that are out of our control – or if you know you don’t have the fortitude, ability, or resources to complete it yourself? Our sages tell us “lo alecha hamlacha ligmor v’lo atah ben chorine le’hebatel meemenah” – we’re not obligated to finish the work, but we’re also not allowed to neglect it.  We can’t let the audaciousness of the task intimidate us and prevent us from doing whatever we can.

What that means on a practical level is that when it comes to accomplishing, the key is jump right in with all of the resources and talents that we do have.  God will (or won’t) step in to do the rest – by miracles or through the help of others – but we’ll have done our part. If we focus only on the end result, we’ll never take that first, trail-blazing step, and the journey will be over before it’s even begun.

Happy Chanukah!

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Allison is the Founder and Director of Jew in the City. Please find her full bio here.

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  1. This is beautiful! Thanks for sharing. I’m definitely sharing this.

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