Tetzaveh: Good to the last drop

Why we begin each day with prayer.

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Rabbi Lazer Gurkow,

Rabbi Lazer Gurkow
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow

Are you a first drop or a last drop kind of person? When you squeeze an olive, the first drop is the purest, the last drop is extracted from the dregs. A first drop kind of person, is a perfectionist; one who strives for purity and the best in all things. A last drop kind of person is easy going, comfortable in all kinds of environments.

But a last drop person doesn’t hang out at the bottom of the barrel to get dirty. This person hangs out at the bottom to separate the oil from the dregs and extract the best from what might otherwise be mistaken for refuse. Are you the kind of person who only interacts with people of noble character and refined demeaner, or do you engage with everyone hoping to bring out the best in all people?

Here is a simple way to put the question. When you play a game, be it chess or basketball. Do you seek out superior opponents, so you could improve, or inferior opponents so you could teach them? Do you seek out advanced study-partners, so they can teach you, or beginners, so you can teach them?

Throughout history there have been two kinds of Jews. There was the Jew who resided in the Jewish neighborhoods, closed out the secular influence of the irreligious world, and breathed in the rarified air of the Torah academies. This is a first drop kind of Jew. Then there are the last drop kind of Jews. They live in the real world, mingle with real people, and try to bring out the best in them.

The world needs both. We need the intellectual who sits in the ivory tower, develops theory, and works with abstract equations. We also need those, who put out these theories to pragmatic use and help real people in real life. We need Jews who immerse themselves in Torah study all day, and we need Jews who live in the real world, making real connections with real people and help show them the way.

This essay will argue that we each need to do a little of both. We need to be a first drop Jew and a last drop Jew. And though these are opposite traits, we can’t succeed in either, unless we embrace both.

Lights and Offerings
In the Temple, there were two rituals that entailed the use of oil. There was a candelabra that was kindled each evening with pure olive oil and there were meal offerings that were mixed with oil. Only the first drop of oil from the olive could be used for the candelabra, but the rest of the oil in the olive could be used for the meal offerings.

The candelabra’s purpose was to fill the world with light. The meal offerings were intended to bring the person closer to G-d. The Hebrew word for offering is Karban, which means to draw close. The purpose of offerings in the Temple was to draw the Jew closer to G-d.

Every Jew has a soul that is filled with light, and to bring ourselves closer to G-d, we need to tune in to the message of our soul. The light of the soul must radiate within us until its message becomes etched in our hearts. It is difficult to tune into the sublime thoughts and passions of our soul when we are distracted by the hustle and bustle of the world. To plug into the soul, we need a quiet serene atmosphere that is conducive to soulfulness.

Sitting in the synagogue, surrounded by like minded people, who study G-d’s Torah, engage in mindful prayer and are dedicated to the mandate of the Jewish people, allows us to plug into the inherent inspiration of our soul. It uplifts and inspires us. It helps us embrace our unique identity as Jews and our role as G-d’s children.

Good to the Last Drop
Yet, plugging into our soul is only the means, it is not the end. The end is to bring ourselves closer to G-d. And by that we mean all of ourselves, not just the refined parts of our character that responds to the sacred rhythms of our soul. Within each of us there are refined elements and base elements, and when we talk of drawing closer to G-d, the focus is precisely on the base elements. On the part of us that is prone to lust, greed, jealousy, anger, and other feelings that we are not proud of. The refined element of our character is already close to G-d. We need to descend to the bottom of the barrel, where the dregs lurk and separate the last drop oil from the dregs so that it too can be drawn closer to G-d.

We have a similar responsibility to the people around us. Our mandate is not just to draw ourselves closer to G-d, but to introduce G-d to the whole of the world. Beyond the walls of our synagogues and Torah academies, the streets teem with people who yearn for a spiritual relationship with G-d, but don’t know where to begin. On the surface, they appear to be dregs at the bottom of the barrel, but inside these dregs are pure drops of oil. They depend on us to help them separate their oil from their dregs and inspire them to a healthier holier way of life.

Balancing First and Last Drop
We can’t succeed at the bottom of the barrel unless we spend time at the top of the barrel. We will not be good to the last drop, unless we focus on the first drop. If we spend our day in environments that bolster our base elements, surrounded by people who are dominated by their base elements, we will likely succumb to those elements.

If we begin each day in the pure rarified environment of holiness, cloistered from the boisterous sights and sounds of the big world, we will be able to plug into the purity and energy of our soul and luxuriate in the intensity of our spiritual relationship with G-d. From this state of mind, we can step out into the world, empowered to make a difference rather than be swallowed by it. Empowered to lift ourselves and others up, rather than allow ourselves to be dragged down. To be an influence, rather than to be influenced.

This is why we begin each day with prayer. Prayer is the Shabbat of our day. We begin each week with the influence of Shabbat, when we plug into the power of our soul and identity. We begin each month with Rosh Chodesh, which is like a mini Rosh Hashanah. And we begin each year with Rosh Hashanah.

These are days and times when we plug into the first drop of oil and refresh our connection with our soul. We are energized spiritually by these moments and empowered to move forward. But these moments are a means to an end. The end is to step away from these moments and descend to the bottom of the barrel, both in ourselves and in the world around us.

Only when the day, week, month and year begin with the first drop, can our barrel be good to the last drop.