Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Spiritual Oil Spills, Flotillas

This article appeared on, August 18th 2010.

We watched in horror as the Gulf of Mexico filled with oil.  Then in June, near the Red Sea in Egypt, oil was discovered washing ashore.  In July, a pipeline exploded in China causing torrents of oil to gush out.  Two world powers, America and China, during the same time period have experienced their biggest oil spill; what is going on?!

Rav Shmuel Brazil, the head of Yeshiva Zeev HaTorah in Jerusalem, in his article, “BP,” quoted a passage from the Talmud that can change the way we view these events.  The Daf Yomi cycle, followed by thousands of Jews around the world, focuses daily study on a page of the Talmud.  On May 21st, the day BP launched a live webcam of the leaking oil, the Daf Yomi reached page 98a in Tractate Sanhedrin.  The Talmud there, interpreting a prophecy of Ezekiel, states that we will know the Messiah is coming imminently when waters will be like oil and masses of fish will die, leading to a shortage.

Why did G-d choose such an unwelcomed harbinger of the Messiah’s coming? 

A possible answer is that this sign warns us of the challenges leading up to the redemption.  The Jewish people are compared to fish and our Torah is compared to water (Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 97).  Fish only thrive in pristine waters and the Jewish nation can only thrive when immersed in the pristine waters of Torah.  Oil can symbolize spiritual estrangement (Deuteronomy 32:15).  When foreign influences – the oil – mix with and supersede our Torah – the water – we see consequences to the fish and symbolically to our people, who have been severely diminished due to rampant assimilation.  What is the essence of our nation, and why is the Torah so essential to our survival?

G-d calls us a holy nation (Exodus 19:6); we are close to the source of all holiness, G-d Himself. Although we have this exhilarating connection, specific acts outlined in His Torah intensify or damage our bond.  The laws and guard-rails in the Torah act as filters, keeping pollutants out and the sanctity of our people in.  Assuming that one does not need all the guard-rails is like BP deciding for themselves that they can safely breach guidelines without causing a blowout.

In my article on the BP oil spill, available at, I discussed parallels between the spill and the flood during Noah’s time.  A significant difference – the fish survived the flood whereas oil spills devastate their numbers.  Rabbi Elie Munk in his The Call of the Torah writes that a main sin preceding the flood was immorality.  Even the animals copied people’s sinful behavior with unnatural coupling; except for the fish, and that was why they were unaffected by the flood.  As mentioned above, fish can be symbolic of our people and oil can exemplify spiritual pollution.  Our Rabbis have pointed out that in the present generation, even some fish – committed Jews, have been affected by the “oil” that floods society.  G-d is alerting us to this danger, by choosing fish threatened with oil as a sign of the Messiah’s forthcoming arrival.  The message is clear; the Messiah is fast-approaching and we need to prepare.

The essence of our people is sanctity.  When we allow impurity into our lives, it is a form of unnatural coupling; an existential threat to our raison d’ĂȘtre.  Therefore, we need to check if our mantle of holiness, that cloaks every Jew, has become sullied.  Have we allowed defilement into our homes?  Perhaps in the things we look at, listen to, or read.  Have our standards of modesty in dress or behavior lapsed?  Do we occasionally stoop to the dog-eat-dog business practices that are beneath us?  For centuries, our crowning glory has been our morality and ethics which stood in stark contrast to the conduct around us.  Yet, recently we have witnessed disturbing breaches in our sacrosanct values.  The words of the Prophet Jeremiah have acquired new meaning (Lamentations 4:16), “The crown of our head has fallen…” 

We are among the select few in the entire world who embody G-d’s teachings given on Mount Sinai.  The sacrifices we make to uphold His Torah are very precious to Him; more precious than we can ever imagine.  As children of G-d, we can and must reach higher, achieving even greater closeness to our Father by not letting anything dampen that connection.

The Vilna Goan, a renowned eighteenth century scholar, quoted by Rabbi Yechiel Weitzman in his book, The Ishmaelite Exile, discussed the period before the Messiah.  He wrote that the number of people who are of average conduct will decrease.  Slowly, two camps will emerge, those unconditionally committed to G-d and His Torah, no matter the challenge, and those who reject limits on their behavior.  A question to ask ourselves, with possibly frightening implications, “Am I among those moving ever closer to G-d?”

When Moses came down from Mount Sinai and saw Jews worshiping the Golden Calf, he wanted those who had shielded themselves from sin to pledge total allegiance to G-d.  He cried out, (Exodus 32:26), “…Me LaShem, A-loy!”  “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me!”  This was not a one time plea; he is speaking to each one of us, every day of our lives, encouraging us to flee from contamination and cling tenaciously to G-d and to the Torah of Moses our teacher.  Perhaps the Messiah will also cry out, “Me LaShem, A-loy!”  Those who answered Moses’ call will be ready.

With the High Holidays rapidly approaching, now is the time to ask ourselves, “Is there an area where I, or my family, have been tainted by ‘oil’ – spiritual impurity?”  If yes, then we must strengthen our commitment to the guidelines of the Torah that addresses the issue with which we struggle.  When we stay within the Torah’s guard-rails, we spread holiness everywhere we go and we feel G-d’s pride when our Father says (Exodus 3:5), “…The place upon which you are standing is holy ground.” 

A goal of life is to achieve deveikus, closeness with G-d.  The above verse shows us how.  The Hebrew word used in this verse for “The place” is “Ha-makom,” also a name of G-d.  If we translate “Ha-makom” as “G-d”, the verse now reads, “G-d, upon which you are standing, is holy ground.”  We are nothing without Him; anything we accomplish is because He lifts us up and we stand on our Father’s shoulders.  This state of oneness, of standing with G-d, is constant; if we were separate from Him we would not exist, as Moses said (Deuteronomy 4:35), “…There is nothing besides Him.”  How do we integrate this awareness?  The previous part of the verse explains how, “…Remove your shoes from your feet...”  The first step is to remove our shoes, symbolic of impurity which makes us feel separate from G-d, upon whose shoulders we are standing.  Then, we can come to the realization that we are one with G-d and always standing on, “holy ground.”   

Oil continues to infiltrate miles of coastline around the world; a different type of menace is occurring simultaneously as Israel struggles with flotillas attempting to infiltrate her borders.  We all realize the extreme danger of letting unfiltered supplies into an enemy territory.  An even greater threat is posed by the unfiltered lures of society, slowly seeping in and eating away at the moral fiber of our people.

Israel has been steadfast in opposing the flotillas; so to must we be in our own lives, never surrendering our mantle of holiness or love of Israel, even if the entire world clamors for us to do just that.  We must be, as King David says in Psalms (103:20), “…Mighty warriors, who do His word...”  When we show G-d that we are willing to fight for His land and to protect the sanctity of His people, then G-d will say to us as He said when redeeming our nation from Egypt (Exodus 14:14), “The Lord will fight for you…”  G-d is ready, are we willing?