The First Press of Oil
Sermon by Rabbi Joel M. Mosbacher on 1st Day Rosh Hashanah, 5783
September 26, 2022
For months, we had collected donations to build the mishkan, the traveling sanctuary where we would worship God in the wilderness.
And then, for months, artisans named Bezalel and Oholiav had been directing the creation of all the tools and utensils and decorations for the mishkan, following the exquisite blueprints laid out for us in the book of Exodus.
Then, in the springtime, we finally erected the structure in its fullness, and proceeded to hold a twelve day dedication ceremony with great fanfare, pomp, and sacrifice.
Upon completing the mishkan, a midrash, an interpretative story taught about our sacred text, says that we turned to God and asked, “what should we do now?”
We join the midrash in imagining the scene: having collected donations from the Israelites in the greatest high holiday appeal in Jewish history (second only to the one we’re going to have this year, right Seth!), and, having erected a mobile worship space of grand design, and, having dedicated the ancient sanctuary – work that had engaged the entire community full time for so long, the people ask God: “what should we do now?”
We had been so committed to the building process for so long that, now that it was done, we had no clue what we should do next!
According to the midrash, God had a perhaps unexpected answer for us.
“Recognize [and celebrate] what you have done,” God told us, according to the midrash, “and then, break down [the sanctuary], and build it again tomorrow. And then do the same the next day, and the day after that, for all eternity.”1
What could Rabbi Abraham Weinberg of Slonim, who taught this midrash in the middle of the 1800s, some 3000 years after our wilderness wandering, have wanted us to learn from this reimagining of the biblical narrative?
This is what the Slonimer Rebbe teaches: he says, “We spend so much time and energy building our own inner selves, our own inner mishkan, thinking perhaps often that our work is complete.
But then, after so much effort, at the end of a long year, when we recognize that we have made small and large mistakes—sometimes the same ones over and over again– we may come to feel like the whole thing has come apart, that our mishkan isn’t whole, and we become so hard on ourselves.”2
When our internal mishkan is broken down, what should we do, asks the Rebbe?
Shall we despair? Get depressed? Give up hope? Throw up our arms in frustration that we can just never get it right?
No, the Slonimer teaches.
When our inner mishkan is broken, we must rebuild it.
Our job, he says, is to practice teshuvah, to turn around and build our inner sanctuary once again.
And when we do rebuild, and we relight the eternal light in the heart of our mishkan, our lives, the Slonimer says, will be renewed.
Doing that work helped the Israelites in the wilderness know that their physical mishkan wasn’t stuck in one place– it could move with them.
Their internal mishkanwasn’t stuck either!
They didn’t have to hold on to the old narrative of themselves as slaves to Pharaoh; they could evolve and change.
And so, says the Rebbe, can we.
But here’s the thing; no one can do the work for us.
There is no Betzalel or Oholiav that can rebuild on our behalf.
We must be the artisans; we must be the builders.
We are the ones who are in charge of the deconstruction of our own souls,
so that we might build them again, strengthened and renewed.
The foundation of teshuvah, of return and repentance, the work of this season of the Jewish year, is the need for us each individually to recognize where we’ve gone wrong, to accept that we’re not perfect, that we each have blemishes in our souls, that we’ve each made missteps in the year now over.
But as we go through this journey of return, teaches the Rebbe, we must not default to the idea that our lives are not worth living or worthy of being whole.
When we see brokenness in our own souls, our tradition teaches that we must be willing to build our inner spirit over again.
And again. And then again.
And that is what Rosh Hashanah, and this season, is all about.
But what do we build that mishkan from?
Like the ancient Israelites who took up a collection from what they already had to build the first mishkan, our tradition teaches that we already have everything we need to rebuild our own inner altars in this new year.
As another chasidic text teaches,3 “I will build an altar from my broken heart.”
With our hearts, with our souls, broken as they might be in this moment, we can build our inner sanctuaries anew.
This process of breaking down, of moving into proximity with our broken bits, our broken hearts, our broken world – and turning to see that all clearly – and then committing to do more, to be more, this process of rebuilding is the invitation we need for the awakening of our souls, and the refreshing of our spirits.
It can propel us forward.
If we’re willing to put on our spiritual work clothesand get a little grubby.
In the process of coming to terms with actually believing that we have everything we need within us, we have a good biblical role model in Moses’s brother Aaron.
When the mishkan was dedicated in the wilderness, the high priest, Aaron, was responsible for bringing the first animal sacrifice – a calf, as it happens.
The irony of that – of Aaron being instructed to bring a calf– is not lost on the rabbis of our tradition.
A teaching from a 19th century text called Netivot Shalom imagines Aaron hesitating, embarrased, because, after all, Aaron was the supervisor in charge some years earlier when the Israelites lost faith, and built the golden calf to worship in place of God.
“Who am I,” Aaron wonders to his brother, “to bring this calf when I helped bring the last calf?”
Moses says to him, “don’t be abashed; it was for this very reason that you were chosen to be the high priest.
It is precisely because4 you are able to recognize your mistakes and feel regret that you are worthy to dedicate this mishkan.”
As it is with Aaron, the midrash says, so it is with us.
We bring our strengths, our goodness, our moral and ethical compasses to this moment.
And, too, we bring our brokenness, our errors, our mistakes, our failures to live up to the better angels of our nature in the past year.
And, with all of that, with the wholeness, and with the brokenness, we can rebuild our inner sanctuaries if we choose to do the work of repentance in these days.
To what can we compare repentance?
Netivot Shalom compares it to the crushing of olives for olive oil.
The Torah instructs us that the oil used in the eternal light that was erected in the mishkan of old was to be from olives beaten kateet l’ma’or, suitable for lighting the eternal light,5 but not the olives beaten kateet l’mincha, which were only suitable for lesser offerings.
What exactly does that mean?
What’s the difference between olive oil that is kateet l’maor, and olive oil that is kateet l’mincha?
Do we have any olive oil manufacturers in the house? No? Different question; do we have anyone here who likes really good olive oil? I know that I do.
Well, let me explain one thing I learned during my sabbatical this summer.
In ancient times, when people wanted olive oil, they would put the olives first in a mortar to extract the first press of the oil – that was the best, purest oil- the Extra Virgin Olive Oil, if you will, and that was the only oil that they’d use to light the eternal light, the light in the most sacred inner chambers of the mishkan.
Then, they’d take the remains of the olives that were left in the mortar and put those remains in a mill, and grind them down to make sure they didn’t waste a drop.
That second press was not fit for bringing light to the mishkan because it had too many impurities, but it could be used in other more mundane rituals in the outer sanctum of the sanctuary of old.
The modern pressers of olive oil still follow the same practices, and for the same reasons.
They know the same thing that our ancestors knew, namely, that, when you’re pressing olives, you actually have to be a little gentle if you want the oil to be delicious and fragrant.
Not to get too technical, but, if, when pressing olives, you crush the pits inside too finely, they release enzymes that bring lots of bitterness to the oil.
And also, if you press the olives too hard with rotating hammers inside a machine, which I’ve learned is really the way to get the most oil out of the olives, if that’s your goal, the friction caused by the hammers in the machine increases the temperature of the oil which is suboptimal if what you want is that perfumy smell that we all associate with really fine olive oil.
And so it is for us, says the midrash.6
When we are doing teshuvah, engaging in the work of repentance that this season of the year invites us to do, we have to be a little hard on ourselves.
We traditionally beat our chests when we offer prayers of repentance as a sign that we are trying to wake our hearts up.
We press on our hearts to acknowledge that we have work to do.
Acknowledging our faults isn’t easy; it doesn’t come automatically to most of us; who wants to really, bluntly see our own faults in their fullness?
I know that I don’t.
Perhaps that’s why these days are called the Days of Awe– the work we must do can be painful; it can fill us with dread.
So the work of repentance is hard – it takes work – work that no one can do for us.
We ourselves have to be the harvesters of the olives, and the pressers of the oil.
But we are cautioned here by our tradition, and by olive oil makers of the last 4500 years of human history.
We must press our souls, our inner mishkan, but only hard enough to be enlightened, like pressing olives kateet l’ma’or, for lighting the ner tamid, the eternal light.
But we must not crush our hearts to a pulp, kateet l’mincha, lest we unleash sediments, and sentiments, of depression and self-hatred.
Close your eyes or settle your gaze.
Take a deep breath in, hold for 2 seconds and release. AGAIN.
From a place of love/compassion for self/others, let’s cheshbon hanefesh
Bring to awareness–
Something you did or said when you let someone/self down
Bring to mind’s eye face of that person– teshuva
Consider words you want to say
-contrition -specifically what you did
-take full responsibility for actions -resolve not to do it again
-ask for forgiveness
Hand on heart
-two deep breaths/feel heartbeat
Repeat: I HAVE EVERYTHING I NEED
TO REBUILD MY MISHKAN
IN MY BODY
IN MY SOUL
As we are together here in wilderness…See your own inner mishkan
-all the loved ones in your life past/present
-Divine presence love/compassion
-Nothing to do– just receive love you deserve– been here all along
Now consider a moment when light filled mishkan
-reconcilled with friend
-accepted a truth
-surrendered to something you couldnt control/fix
What gratitude do you feel– REBUILDING IS POSSIBLE!
FLAME IN INNER MISHKAN CAN BE RELIT
Take a moment to seal in what has emerged, thank yourself
Know that you are deeply worthy of love
Eminently/uniquely qualified to rebuild your mishkan
Slowly gently open eyes/lift gaze
We are called upon in this season of the year to repent in such a way that we come out on the other side of Yom Kippur with greater light in our lives, building ourselves, and our relationships, back up after having taken down what is not worthy in the mishkan of our hearts.
Just as the Israelites built and rebuilt the mishkan in the wilderness each day that they might rebuild and recommit to their relationships with one another and with the Holy One of Blessing, so must we never give up on rebuilding our inner selves, that we might recommit ourselves to continuing to grow, to striving to be our best selves.
And, even if we have engaged in teshuvah, in rituals and acts of repentance, over and over; even if we find ourselves in this season with the same regrets we had last year, and the year before, and the year before that, we cannot let our spirits fall or become despondent.
No matter how low we feel, no matter how broken we may be,
Jewish tradition affirms that we can build an altar from our broken hearts, if we are willing to do the hard, at times uncomfortable, work of repentance.
So as we press on our hearts in these days, and there’s a little bottle of olive oil for you to take on your way out to remind you, let’s not beat our chests in self-flagellation, pressing so hard that we crush our souls.
Instead, let’s press just enough to get the purest oil- the oil that will light our way for the year ahead.
1 Yesod Ha’avodah (R. Abraham Weinberg of Slonim)
2 Netivot Shalom (R. Shalom Noach Berezovsky)
3 Shir Hayichud for Sunday
4 R. Chaim Vital’s gloss
5 Exodus 27:20
6 Torah Avot