Some commentators, such as Khaquiz (1672-1761) believed that, just as olives "...yield up its oil only when it is crushed, [so] the people of Israel reveals its true virtues only when it is made to suffer." Though there is something positive in the idea that the Jewish people are able to show strength and perseverance in the face of persecution and adversity, I am simultaneously troubled by his claim that it is "only" when we are oppressed that we are able to reveal our true virtues. If true, this would give support not only to the image of Jews as eternal victims, but to the necessity of this continual state for our benefit as a people! One could actually view this commentary as a call for the continuation of oppression in order for us to keep our distinctiveness. This is something of which I cannot approve.
Other commentators have also likened us to olive oil, insofar as we keep ourselves separate from the other nations, just as olive oil remains separate even when mixed with other ingredients. I would affirm the positive aspect of maintaining our distinct identity regardless of the surrounding culture. However, I also believe that it is possible – and necessary - for us to do so while still firmly planting our feet in the soil of the nations in which we live, and in the world community. We live in two civilizations, as Mordechai Kaplan said over sixty years ago when creating his platform for Reconstructionist Judaism. Actually, most of us probably live in more than that!
Finally, some commentators focus on the fact that oil rises above the other ingredients with which it is mixed. They use this as a metaphor that Jews, when they maintain loyalty to Judaism and the Jewish people, immersing themselves in Jewish knowledge and practice, actual rise above the other peoples of the world. The belief in the inherent (or potential) superiority of Judaism inherent in this metaphor is extremely problematic.
Finally, Bereshit Rabbah, a collection of midrashim (rabbinic exegetical tales) on the book of Genesis, likens this idea of the olive oil and the lighting of the ner tamid to the directive in the Book of Isaiah that we are to be a "light unto the nations." I have no problem embracing the concept of the Jewish people being "a light unto the nations." However, we are not THE light unto the nations!
There are many traditions and values within Judaism that can indeed teach others to live a moral, ethical and spiritual life. However, this is not solely the domain of Judaism. Other religions and traditions also have light that they can share with us and with others as well. Personally, I have learned much from teachings within Buddhism, though I have viewed them through a Jewish lens and adapted them accordingly.
Our tradition may be unique, but it is not inherently superior to others. Therefore, we can and should serve as one of the many lights among the nations that help to bring goodness and godliness into the world. To say that we are meant to be the sole exemplar is chauvinistic and promotes feelings of superiority.
This coming spring (which I know will eventually arrive, even in the Northeast U.S.) we will celebrate two holidays that deal with triumph over adversity and oppression: Purim and Passover. When we think of these holidays, we should keep in mind what has enabled us to triumph over oppression and to rise to the top like olive oil, for so many centuries. I am not speaking of being ‘chosen’ or of our ‘inherent superiority’. Rather, it is the sense of connection to community, God, the pursuit of holiness and the oneness of the universe at the core of Judaism, which I believe has enabled us us to triumph. It is the light of the Ner Tamid, the Eternal Light, the Divine light, burning within each of us, that has enabled us to see through the darkness that no enemy is truly invincible. For what weakens others is their belief that they are separate, apart, superior and stronger than everyone else. What makes this a fatal flaw is the further belief that what strength and power they do have comes from them and not from a greater power.
The Jewish people is at its best when we recognize that the strength and the light within each individual and the community originates in the greater light that we call God. By connecting to that light, we join together in strength and unity. That strength and unity allows us to triumph over the more base and mundane aspects of human nature and over the oppressive and destructive forces in the world.
In the end, this is the challenge for each of us as human beings and as a member of the Jewish people: to find the strength, compassion, holiness and beauty that is the essence of the Divine light within us, and allow it to shine on all of God's creation. We must do so in our uniquely Jewish way, while also recognizing others unique ways. And we must do so not only when we are fighting oppression. This is not an easy task, but it is one that we must undertake, moment by moment, in order to bring the light of Ner Tamid, the light of the Eternal One, into our world and in order remember the ultimate meaning of our Jewishness, our humanity, and the light of the Divine is indeed within each of us.