Whale Oil or Olive Oil

December 8th, 2010 Posted by Thought Tools 1 comment

Tonight we light the 8th and final light of Chanukah. Chanukah serves as an antidote to one of the most oppressive sensations that torments us all—shortage.  We agonize over shortage of money, space, love, health, and friends.  Scarcity is even promoted as a part of the sacred sacrament of secularism. It is indeed the rightful result for those who reject God.  In contrast, as we light one additional flame each night of Hanukkah we inject into our souls the idea that through God, each day can bring more and more, not less and less. 

Just over 2,000 years ago, the Hasmoneans, led by Judah Maccabee, successfully rebelled against their Greek oppressors who had ransacked the Jerusalem Temple. The high priest, who was preparing to rededicate the Temple and relight the menorah, found only one small jar of pure olive oil. Ancient Jewish wisdom teaches that this jar of oil, sufficient for only one day, miraculously kept the menorah burning for eight full days.

Beguiled by the story, it is all too easy to ignore a deeper meaning—God's blessing of bounty.  By the laws of nature there was insufficient oil to last until more could be gotten. But the laws of God transcend the laws of nature. One legacy of ancient Greece, which is the rejection of monotheism, contracts the bounty of the universe while God with His gift of infinite limitlessness expands it.

Secularists, today’s heirs of Greek philosophy, obsess irrationally on lack of resources. This, in spite of the fact that historical parallels ranging from Thomas Malthus' notorious 1798 "Essay on Population," all the way to my examples below, have proven to be needlessly hysterical.

America used to depend on whale oil for lighting. During the early 19th century, pundits warned that since whales were being harvested at an ever increasing rate, America would soon go dark. To conserve the remaining whale oil, they recommended extinguishing all lanterns no later than 10 p.m. They were right about running out of whale oil, but they were wrong about America going dark. In 1859, a railroad conductor called Edwin Drake struck oil in Titusville, Pa. America remained brightly lit by lanterns that burned paraffin.

Until the early 18th century, colonial homes were heated mostly by burning wood. Forests were vanishing and the rapidly growing colonies were running out of firewood. Eliminate immigration and ration firewood, was the call of the day. They were right about running out of firewood but it didn't matter because we soon found and began burning a far superior fuel called coal.

During the 1980s, fax machines became popular and people installed additional lines to accommodate these devices.  Frightened “experts” like Paul Ehrlich, issued dire warnings about the price of copper. There was insufficient copper in the world to run two phone lines to every home.
They were right about there not being enough copper. They were wrong about its price. The miracle of God-given human ingenuity made copper almost as redundant as whale oil. We began sending data through impossibly thin glass filaments. Glass is made from sand and we are in no danger of running out of sand.

Lacking sufficient copper, whale oil or wood only seemed to be a problem. In reality, our God-given ingenuity developed exciting new technology that eliminated our need for each commodity just as it was becoming scarce.

Hanukkah invites us all to express gratitude to the Creator whose beneficence is boundless. It reminds us that with His gift of creativity, challenges become optimistic opportunities to partner with God to solve all our material shortages.

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One comment

Gidon says:

excellent presentation of the Blessing of Bounty vs Malthusianism debate.
Thanks!

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