Chayei Sarah: Oil for the Lamp

“Now Avraham was zaken / old, well on in days, and Hashem had blessed Avraham bakol / with everything.”

Genesis 24:1

Why does our verse say that Avraham was “well on in days” rather than “well on in years”? R’ Yaakov Yosef Hakohen z”l (1710-1784; foremost disciple of the Ba’al Shem Tov z”l; known by chassidim as “the Toldos” after one of his works) explains:

The Gemara (Shabbat 153a) teaches: Rabbi Eliezer said, “Repent one day before you die. But, since no one knows when he will die, repent every day.” King Shlomo likewise said (Kohelet 9:8), “At all times, let your clothes be white.” Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai said: “This may be likened to a king who announced that he would hold a feast, but did not announce the time. The intelligent ones among his entourage dressed-up so as to be ready on a moment’s notice, while the fools did not prepare.” [Until here from the Gemara]

-Rabbi Shlomo Katz
“Beginnings and Endings”
Hamaayan, Volume 26, No. 5
Commentary for Torah Portion Chayei Sarah
Torah.org

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

Matthew 25:1-13 (ESV)

Ben Zoma says: Who is wise? The one who learns from every person…

-Pirkei Avot 4:1

Who is wise? The motto for the Boy Scouts is “Be prepared,” so, given the lessons we see above, it would seem that we would be wise if we learned from the sages who provided those teachings. We can learn from every person, but it is better to learn from those who have something useful and edifying to say.

And yet, how often do we ignore wise teachings until it is too late? How often do you put off changing the batteries in the smoke detectors in your home? How often do you let the needle on your car’s gas gauge get down to “E” before looking for a gas station? And while it’s impossible to predict an earthquake, if you knew a hurricane was coming, how long would you wait before trying to leave for a safer location or stocking up on food and water for yourself, and batteries for your radio, and then shuttering your windows against the coming storm?

No, I’m not taking a cheap shot at the victims of hurricane Sandy, but rather, I’m saying something about we Christians. How often do we take “being saved” for granted, even when we know that a “storm” is coming? How often do we take our relationship with God for granted and think we know everything we need to know about Him?

I saw this yesterday on Facebook:

Going to be a very interesting year ahead. I started going to a Bible study with a friend of mine, yesterday was our first class and let me just say complete shock. They are studying B’RESHEET (Genesis) and in the new members class the leader was telling us how she has been a Christian for over 40 years, joined this Bible study 5 years ago and it was the first time she ever read the ‘Old Testament’. Many of the other women commented that they too had not read anything other than the Psalms and had no idea where this thought of ‘twelve’ tribes came from. How very ,very sad.

Isn’t that a little like waiting until the last minute before getting oil for your lamps, and then getting locked out of the “marriage feast?”

OK, a lot of Christians don’t really consider the Old Testament to be that important. A lot of churches bill themselves as “New Testament” churches and that’s pretty much all they feel they need. However, since all of Christ’s “source material” from Scripture was before the Gospel of Matthew, it might be wise to study what he must have studied (We sort of assume that Jesus just “knew” the Bible forward and backward, but as a child and young adult, no doubt like other Jews, he attended synagogue on Shabbos, heard the sacred texts being read, and studied as would be expected of a young Jewish lad from a humble family in the Galilee).

We do know that he knew a few things and learned a few things growing up.

After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. And when his parents saw him, they were astonished.

Luke 2:46-48 (ESV)

It is true that studying does not automatically assure that a person will grow wise, but lack of study will almost certainly result in a person being ignorant. Christianity and Judaism have one core document that provides us with a connection to those who established our faith and who can tell us the story of man and God: the Bible (“Bible” has different definitions depending on whether you’re Christian or Jewish).

But it’s not that simple.

To define sola scriptura without academic terminology might sound something like this: The Bible is the only authority in the believer’s life; it is never wrong about anything; it touches on every aspect of life; it needs no outside help to be correctly interpreted; it never disagrees with itself; it can be understood by anyone of average intelligence; and it applies to everyone in every situation.

-Jacob Fronczak
“The Five Solas: Sola Scriptura”
Messiah Journal, Issue 111 (pg 47)

That sounds good as far as it goes, but let’s see what else Pastor Fronczak has to say.

I only use the example of translations to illustrate the fact that in a very practical sense, the Scriptures in their original languages are, for most Christians, not enough – tools such as translations, concordances, the Masoretic vowel points, and commentaries are required in order to understand the text. Of course, the goal is to understand the original text, which in itself is not an objection to the doctrine of sola scriptura – until one realizes that every translation, every commentary, and even the textual tradition itself are all based on traditions along with the divine written revelation. It is simply impossible to get away from these traditions and study the Bible in isolation. (Fronczak, pg 52)

It seems that studying the scriptures to acquire wisdom is getting harder or at least more complicated all the time.

I’ll probably write another “meditation” sometime soon expanding on other points in Fronczak’s article, but essentially, he is saying that we cannot study the Bible in any useful manner without employing (hold on to your hats) the “traditions of the (Christian) elders.”

“The traditions of the elders” has received a lot of “bad press” in Christianity because of the perception that both ancient and modern Jews allow “the traditions of men” to have authority equal to or even greater than the Bible. The Christian response, particularly among Protestants, is to say, “let scripture interpret scripture,” which is the short definition of sola scriptura. That means, “no traditions are allowed,” just the Bible itself. However, Fronczak’s article makes it abundantly clear that the early church fathers employed a great deal of tradition in even canonizing the books of the New Testament, and Catholicism, even to this day, states that the Bible can only be understood through its traditions.

Imagine the shock of realizing that the same is true among all modern-day Protestant churches as well. We just don’t choose to say it in those words.

Remember that quote from Pirkei Avot about a person being wise if they learn from everyone?

And what about the commentary on Abraham and its apparent companion lesson about the ten virgins? How can we learn from everyone and how can we be prepared to learn what we need to learn in order to comprehend what the Master is teaching us, and thus draw closer to God?

You must unlearn what you have learned.

-Yoda (Frank Oz – voice)
The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

In some sense, learning what’s important and what takes us on the path toward wisdom means “unlearning” concepts and doctrines that we discover aren’t useful in our lives. That isn’t always easy when such information is directly attached to words like “sacred” and “holy” and “divine revelation.” It would be like a person who learned as a child that God was a giant, old man with a long white beard who sits on a huge golden throne on a cloud in the sky. Now imagine that child is Jewish and then he grows up and learns that according to Rambam’s thirteen principles of faith, God doesn’t even have a body and is not to be considered a corporeal being? If the fellow was still young enough, that might come as quite a jolt.

Now imagine being a woman of middle age who has been a Christian for forty years reading from the book of Genesis for the first time. Taking it a step further, imagine the same woman in a group of women studying the Old Testament, accessing the classic interpretations for Genesis to try to understand anything at all about who Abraham was, where he came from, why God made a covenant with him, and what that covenant means to both Jews and Christians today.

If we are to take the lesson from Avot at face value, then our class of women might want to “unlearn” a few things about the Old Testament and learn, not only from extra-Biblical Christian commentaries about Genesis, but from a few Jewish ones as well.

Certainly Jesus understood Abraham from a completely Jewish context and framework. If we want to understand Jesus, we must understand what he understood.

Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought.

-Matsuo Basho

So we unlearn what is not useful to us and then start learning from a wide variety of sources, seeking to understand God (as best we can) and who we are in Him. How do we know when we’re “prepared enough?” Five of the ten virgins kept “flasks of oil” with them for their lamps so that when the bridegroom came, they were ready to light them, even if it was at midnight. How do we know when we’ve studied enough so that we have “flasks of oil” at hand?

Let’s look at it another way. Studying, learning, understanding, are all active processes. You can’t bottle the stuff and put it on a shelf for a rainy day. It’s like continually replenishing the oil in lamps that continually must be burning. This makes sense when compared to another parable of the Master about we Christians being the light of the world (see Matthew 5:14-16) and how our light must be placed where everyone can see it burning all the time.

Our “lamps” will never be filled to 100% capacity where we can then stop tending to them. We are prepared when we’re always preparing; when we’re always studying, and learning, and discussing, and pondering, and repenting, and praying, and…you get the idea.

In each journey of your life you must be where you are. You may only be passing through on your way to somewhere else seemingly more important—nevertheless, there is purpose in where you are right now.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Be There”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

Or in the words of my generation, “Wherever you go there you are.” We should all consider ourselves “a work on progress.” We’ll never be complete. We’ll never be “finished” or “done” or “perfect.” As long as we live, we must move forward. As long as we’re breathing, there’s someplace else to go, something else to learn, another person we need to meet.

And God will always be with us, as long as we continually seek him, and walk by the light of our lamp.

Good Shabbos.

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