Oil & Hanukkah: Oil for Power & Profit, or Prophetic Oil?

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow *

Hanukkah has within it four teachings far deeper than we usually know, teachings to address one of the great dangers of our day: the Oiloholic addiction of American society.

FIRST, there is the teaching of Hanukkah about OIL itself.

According to the rabbinic tale, after the Maccabees rose up against the Hellenistic empire of Antiochus, they came to rededicate the Holy Temple that had become a place of imposed idolatry.

They needed to rekindle the holy Menorah, the candlestick of eternal Light. But there was only enough consecrated olive oil to burn for a single day, and it would take eight days to press and consecrate more oil.

Ordinary good sense would have said to wait for more oil to be readied. What good to celebrate for a single day and then have to sadly experience the light's extinguishment and wait a week for new light?

But they went beyond common sense. They lit the Menorah –-- and the oil lasted for eight days!

That was God's conservation of energy.

To "con-serve" is to "work with." Not to dominate, not to coerce, not to exploit – but to work with.

The story teaches that God worked WITH the earth, made it possible for one day's worth of oil to last eight days.

If you want to end your own idolatry and rededicate yourself to the Infinite source of light, learn how to work WITH, not against or upon, the earthly flow of good God has provided.

It took both audacity and tenacity to light that Menorah.

In our lives, to break our oiloholic addiction that drags us into wars and ruination of the earth and subjugates us to political corruption –- to break this addiction demands of us both audacity and tenacity.


The Emperor Antiochus commanded the Jews to worship idols, and killed and tortured those who refused.

But perhaps even worse, some Jews abandoned their covenant with the One Who is Infinite and bowed down to limited and partial gods when they were told to. The Maccabeean rebellion began when Mattathias saw his own cousins surrender to idolatry.

Emperors are always killing and torturing their subjects to force them to worship idols. It is practically the definition of an Empire --- Pharaoh, Antiochus, Caesar, and later, more sophisticated versions like the Inquisition and the Nazis, which demanded worship not of statues but of a narrow version of religion and of race. The idols are always images of the empire itself -- just as God's only image is a living, breathing, unique human being.

Idols are always items that in their limited place are useful. It is when we addict ourselves to them that they become destructive. Tobacco, alcohol, morphine, food, sex -- all useful or delightful as part of the Infinite Flow. But when we take any one of them and worship it, make it our Be-all and especially our End-all, then it has become an idol.

For us: Oil. The oil-guzzling automobile. The lower mileage the better, because offering up oil is our favorite act of worship.

And we kill our children and the children of our children, to offer up this oil as smoke to cloud the air and scorch our planet.

Who said child sacrifice has ended?

Addiction is idolatry. And today we are addicted to oil and its handmaiden automobile.

When we leap to kill and die for them, when we devastate the earth for them, they have become our idols.

And who is Antiochus, commanding us to worship these idols? Commanding us to burn our children for oil, our planet for oil?

Who are the Drug Lords of this addiction?

Who has insisted that there is no such thing as climate crisis, global scorching?

Who has insisted that the Iraq War must be fought?

Big Oil and its governmental allies.


Hanukkah calls us to light candles when the moon is dark in the lunar cycle, when the sun absents itself as the winter solstice comes.

In the dark times of Imperial Antiochus, the Maccabees lit the lamp of hope when despair had swallowed up the Infinite Light.

This Hanukkah, light the lamps of hope. The empires of arrogance destroy themselves because their arrogance breeds stupidity. Their arrogance tells them they need pay no heed to reality around them. So they make themselves deaf to others' warnings, blind to others' wisdom, stupid.

But it takes the action of those who see the One Light of the Infinite to break through the darkness of idolatrous empires.


The rabbis taught that for the Sabbath of Hanukkah, we read a prophetic passage (Zechariah 2: 14 to 4: 7) about the rekindling of the Menorah after the collapse of the Babylonian Empire. But not for that connection alone do we read it.

It teaches: "Not by might, and not by power, but by My Breathing-Spirit, says the Infinite Breath of Life."

It is empires that depend on might and power. We, the people, those who light and relight the Infinite, who bestir ourselves to hope in times of dark despair, who bring audacity, tenacity, to the change that needs doing, who "con-serve" – work with -- the weave of God's Creation instead of exploiting it: --

With blessings of light, of hope, of peace, of spirit -- we bring not might, not power, but the Breath of Life.


* Rabbi Arthur Waskow is the author of GODWRESTLING — ROUND 2 (Jewish Lights) and director of The Shalom Center www.theshalomcenter.org, which voices a new prophetic agenda in Jewish, multireligious, and American life. To receive the weekly on-line Shalom Report, click on --


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