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My Heart Is on Lockdown, My Life Is On Empty

The Widow, the Prophet and the Flask of Oil

    Rabbi YY Jacobson

  • November 10, 2011
  • |
  • 13 Cheshvan 5772
  • Comment

Class Summary:

When You’re Bored with Life - The Desire for Desire

Dedicated by David and Eda Schottenstein, In the loving memory of Alta Shula Swerdlov and in the merit of Yetta Alta Shula, "Aliya," Schottenstein

Ignorance & Apathy

What is the difference between ignorance and apathy? A man asked his friend.

— I don’t know and I don’t care, was his response.

Midnight Lecture

A Jewish man is speeding along the highway at 1 a.m. A policeman stops him and asks, "Where are you racing at this hour?"

"To a lecture," the man responds.

"Who will give you a lecture at this hour?" the policeman wonders.

"My wife," he replies.

The Cruse of Oil

This week, Jews the world over will read a biblical tale about an impoverished widow, a kind prophet, and a cruse of oil, described in the Book of Kings[1]. Here is the story:

"A woman, the wife of one of the prophets, called out to Elisha: 'My husband, your servant, has died, and you know that your servant was G-d fearing — now the creditor has come to take my two sons as slaves'[2].

"Said Elisha to her, 'What can I do for you? Tell me, what have you in your home?'

"She answered: 'Your maidservant has nothing in the house but a cruse of oil.'

"He said, 'Go borrow vessels for yourself from the outside, from all your neighbors; empty vessels; only that they not be few.

"Then go in and shut the door behind you and behind your children; pour into all these vessels and remove each full one.'"

The woman obeyed. "They brought her and she poured. When all the vessels were full, she said to her son, 'Bring me another vessel.' He said to her, 'There are no more vessels.' And the oil stopped.

"She came and told the man of G-d (Elisha), and he said, 'Go sell the oil and pay your creditors, and you and your sons will live on the remainder.'"

What’s the Relevance?

On the surface, this is a story about a compassionate prophet willing to lend a hand to help a lone, destitute widow who lost her husband and is about to lose her children. The prophet performs a miracle of an endless oil flow that saves the woman's family and economy.

Yet, a basic axiom of Jewish tradition is that the true significance of the Torah lies not in the historical tales it records or the ancient figures it depicts, but in the messages these tales and figureheads hold for our lives today. The Torah — including every episode, event, and law transcribed therein – as its name indicates (Torah means teachings) was meant to constitute a blueprint for living, a spiritual road map for the complicated, painful, and stressful voyage of each human being on our small but very hectic planet[3].

But how can we personally relate to this story? Most of us do not profess to be prophets or miracle workers. Though it would actually be nice to have an Elisha who could secure our oil flow, and spare us from dependency on the Middle East, that is not the case at the moment. So how can this tale of a widow, a prophet and a cruse of oil serve as a source for inspiration and guidance in our contemporary lives?

A Young Man's Cry

Two hundred years ago, in the first decade of the 19th century, a young man entered the chambers of one of the great Jewish thinkers and personalities of the time, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812). The young man's question was simple: "I feel numb, frozen, and apathetic; my insides are dead. What should I do?"

Rabbi Schneur Zalman, a person of profound love, extraordinary wisdom, and intense spirituality shared with his distressed young pupil the tale of the widow and the prophet, and proceeded to demonstrate how this ancient biblical story contained a response to the young man's loneliness.

I wish to present to you—in my own words—this insight of Rabbi Schneur Zalman[4].

A Dead Soul

The soul of a human being has been compared to a woman—a wife of G-d, as it were[5].

Why? Because the soul represents that part of our identity that is in a perpetual relationship with G-d, described as “the husband.” A husband and a wife, even when they have issues with each other, are still in a relationship. They can love each other or hate each other, but they can't be indifferent to each other. The soul is that part of our self that cannot ignore G-d[6].

But then comes the day when the woman cries out about her husband's death—the death of her divine spark. She turns to the prophet, representing G-d,[7] and says, "My husband, your servant—the divine energy-field within me—has died and you know that your servant was G-d fearing." The Hebrew term for "my husband" (eishi) may also be translated as "my fire." This is the cry of many a human being: My soul used to have a flame, but today it is completely extinguished. I have become apathetic to any deeper, spiritual reality of life. I am numb, detached, and lifeless. G-d has become meaningless to me.

If Boredom is the desire for desires (as Tolstoy put it in Anna Karenina), this soul can be described as genuinely bored. Gone is the sense of mystery, the quest to embrace.

“I’d rather die of exhaustion than of boredom,” a wise man once remarked. Indeed, the death that comes from boredom and apathy could be extremely painful.

An Enslaved Heart

Even worse, cries the soul, "the creditor has come to take my two sons as slaves."

Love and awe, closeness and distance, affection and discipline, these two polar forces have been dubbed in Kabbalah as the two "children" of their intellectual progenitors. Emotions are born and molded by awareness and cognition; the mind is the parent and the heart is the child. The two primary emotions, or children, are attraction and rejection, since every existing emotion is either a form of attraction or a form of rejection[8].

Everybody experiences attraction and rejection in his or her life. Everybody loves and everybody despises. We gravitate and we recoil; we love and we fear. The question is, toward whom and toward what?

Do you love people, or do you love gossip? Do you love truth, or do you love addiction? Do you love depth, or do you love superficiality? Do you love justice and righteousness, or do you love instant gratification and crave the transient? Are you attracted to your soul or are you drawn to externality or even promiscuity? We all have fear, but from what? From losing our human dignity or from exposing our true selves? From people or from G-d?

This is the cry of the numb human being: My soul is dead, and my emotions have been manipulated and enslaved. I do not own my love or my awe anymore. I have been robbed of them; they are owned by forces outside of me. "The creditor has come to take my two sons as slaves."

Whence the Romance?

A similar outcry is often heard from a couple struggling in a relationship.

Perhaps over the years, you shared magical moments with each other; there were times when heaven bestowed its grace on your union, and romance flowed from your lips like milk and honey. You were madly in love.

But now, the relationship is suffocating. The love is gone and the magic dead. Your heart is devoid of any feelings and your spouse drains you. At such a dreadful moment, you turn to G-d, or to a friend, or a marriage counselor and you cry out: Whence the romance? Whence the electricity? What happened to that part of me that could explode in love toward my partner?

An Artificial Heart

A similar cry may often be heard from an emotionally crippled adult.

You grew up in a dysfunctional environment. Your father or your mother (or both) never uttered the words every child craves to hear and feel, "I love you." You have never been taught to feel your emotions and express them in an appropriate fashion. Now, when it is your turn to build relationships with your children, you find yourself incapable of experiencing and expressing real emotions. You're locked. You feel that you possess an artificial heart and you hate it.

The Human Story

"Said Elisha to her: 'What can I do for you?—Tell me, what have you in your home?'

She answered: 'Your maidservant has nothing in the house but a cruse of oil.'"

The first and most moving divine response to an impoverished soul is, "What can I do for you?" In effect, the response seems to mean that I can't really be of help to you!

Why? Because the drama of human life lay precisely in the fact that it is the only story not written by G-d. G-d can inspire it, create all of the revolving circumstances and even predict it, but never write it[9].

The real question, G-d is saying, is not "What can I do for you?" but rather "What do you have in your home?" You must search within yourself for the answer to your crisis. The answer to human pain must ultimately come from the human being himself or herself.

"I have nothing," the woman cries. "There is nothing left of my soul. I am spiritually and emotionally dead."

Really? If you were truly dead, why are you in pain? If you don't care, why do you care about the fact that you're don’t care?

The woman thus qualifies her previous statement. "Yes, I do have something left in my home that was not taken away: A cruse of oil[10]."

Who Are You?

What is the uniqueness of oil? When you mix pure oil with any other liquid the oil remains aloof, never forfeiting its identity in the conglomeration of many other liquids[11].

Oil, therefore, represents the core of cores of human identity — a dimension of self that remains unsoiled and untouched by all of life's experiences[12].

Can you close your eyes, take a deep breath, meditate for a few moments, and then describe your core? When all the layers, including the subconscious layers, are stripped, what will emerge?

Jewish mysticism gives us four cardinal laws to characterize the human core (or any core), termed "etzem" in Hebrew: It is undefined, unchangeable, indivisible, and non-experiential. The most innate dimension of a human life is not defined by anything or anybody outside of itself. It is not a composite of distinct forces that combine to make up the final product called man. Rather, it is a self-contained reality that is defined exclusively within and by itself.

If you attempt to describe your essence, to capture it in words, feelings, or awareness — it is not the core anymore. The only thing that can capture essence is the essence itself. The moment you attempt to "capture" it, to put it in a "box" and transport it to another domain, you have lost the pristine core.

This unshakable core—the essence of human dignity—is the "cruse of oil" that could never be taken from you. It is what makes you — you; it can't be understood, mimicked or manipulated by anybody else. It can't be manipulated even by you yourself.

Why Are We In Therapy?

It may be that the primary cause for the deep insecurity and lack of confidence that plague countless women and men today is their lack of identification with this inner "cruse of oil."

Many of us have come to believe that we are merely a conglomeration of various genes, chemicals, and DNA. But does my “self” own a core that is uniquely mine? Judaism teaches that at the core of all the forces governing our lives lays a tiny but untouchable "cruse of oil" bestowing upon us an inexhaustible source of selfhood.

Your emotions may be faint, and your soul may be dead, but your "cruse of oil" is always present. That part of your life that stands face to face with G-d's essence — essence to essence — never dies. It may be buried for decades, but it is never dead.

Hollow Vessels

Now, the prophet Elisha turns to the widow and says, "Go borrow vessels for yourself from the outside, from all your neighbors; empty vessels; only that they not be few. Then go in and shut the door behind you and behind your children; pour into all these vessels and remove each full one.'"

Empty and borrowed vessels serve as a metaphor for uninspired robot-like actions that are empty of passion and enthusiasm, actions which we could never call "our own" since our heart and soul are not present in these actions.

"Go borrow vessels from all your neighbors; empty vessels; only that they not be few," says the prophet of G-d.

Act, act more, and act even more.

Continue to perform G-dly, moral and sacred deeds, many good and G-dly deeds, even if they seem borrowed and empty to you.

As for an empty marriage — make sure to act lovingly, though you may feel that your spouse is a burden. Fill your life with thousands of empty vessels, with numerous acts of "borrowed love" in which your own heart is not present. Husbands: Go out and buy roses, wash the dishes, put the kids to sleep, pick up the groceries, write cards. Wives: Say loving words, do kind things, and build up your husbands. Each and every day perform acts of love and kindness toward your spouse.  

As for a closed-heart parent attempting to educate his or her children — approach your children, embrace them, and tell them how you much love them. Your heart may be locked, and your emotions stifled — it does not matter. We want empty vessels. As many empty vessels as we can get.

What's the Point?

You know what happens next?

"Go in and shut the door behind you and behind your children," says Elisha. "Pour into all these vessels and remove each full one.'"

"They brought her and she poured. When all the vessels were full she said to her son, 'Bring me another vessel.' He said to her, 'There are no more vessels. And the oil stopped."

Every so often in life (it may be once a month, once in three months, or once a year), our "cruse of oil" emerges, if only for a few fleeting moments. If it has no "vessels" to fill, it emerges but then "returns" to its hiding place in the core of cores of the human identity. We remain hungry for our core, but we have no way of accessing it again till the next time it emerges.

But if when the essence of your soul emerges it finds "waiting" for it hundreds or thousands of empty vessels, it will begin to flow and flow until every empty vessel is filled with the dignity, depth and meaning of the divine essence of the human spirit.

Praying When You're Not in the Mood

This, then, was Rabbi Schnuer Zalman's response to a young man, attempting to live a Jewish life based on the principles and guidelines of the Torah and its mitzvos, and yet feeling indifferent and uninspired.

Who among us can't relate to this man's quandary? How many of us could claim that each morning as we awake we are in the mood of wrapping tefilin (phylacteries), meditating on the soul, and praying to G-d for an hour? How many mitzvos in our daily lives become an exercise in boredom and sluggishness?

At some point, many a person asks himself, "What's the point? If I would feel G-d, living a life of Torah and mitzvos would be an awesome experience. But most of the time I don't feel G-d; my mitzvos are hollow, empty acts!"

Yet, a day not too far away will come, when your "cruse of oil" will indeed emerge. Those who with sweat and toil constructed "empty vessels" in their lives, when their matching moment arrives, their days and nights shall become filled with the endless profundity and dignity of their Divine core.

For many of us, it is impossible to live a life of perpetual inner vitality and inspiration; but we are capable of filling our lives with empty vessels, with a schedule saturated with meaningful acts and experiences. When the moment will come, and your soul will peek out from its inner core, its life force and inspiration will fill all your empty vessels with life[13].

[1] Kings 2 chapter 4.

[2] According to our sages, the widow was the wife of the late prophet Obadiah who spent all his money on oil for the lamps that lit the two caves that hid the last 100 Jewish authentic prophets from the wicked king Ahab and his, even more, evil wife Jezebel. This story takes us back about 2720 years, in the Jewish year 3040 since creation, or 720 BCE (around 300 years before the first temple was destroyed).

[3] This fundamental axiom concerning the Bible is beautifully explained in Zohar vol. 3 53b.

[4] Published in Maamarei Admur Hazalan Haktzarim pp. 136-138. Quoted and explained in Likkutei Sichos vol. 5 pp. 332-335; Sefer Hammamrum Melukat vol. 4 pp. 43-50.

[5] See Maamarei Admur Hazakan ibid. Cf. Song of Songs and many of the commentaries to the book. Rambam Hilchos Teshuvah chapter 10. Many ideas in the Talmud, Midrash and Kabbalah are based on this metaphor.

[6] The Tanach uses the expression, “eisha achas,” one woman, which symbolizes the idea that the soul is one and always connected to the Divine. She is also the wife of the prophet, symbolizing the fact that the soul is a conduit and a channel for the Divine vibrations within the cosmos.

[7] The name of the prophet is Elisha, which means “my G-d turns (and responds to me.)”

[8] Tanya chapter 3.

[9] See Rambam Hilchos Teshuvah chapter 5.

[10] This explains why the widow first stated that she has nothing, and then proceeded to say that she possesses a cruise of oil. In the soul's mind, she has nothing left to call her own. Yet her very pain about it demonstrates that the situation is far from hopeless. (This idea, a beautiful addition to the discourse of Rabbi Schnuer Zalman, was presented by the Lubavitcher Rebbe during a 1964 talk. Likkutei Sichos vol. 5 ibid.)

[11] See Mishnah Tevul Yom 2:5.

[12] See Sefer Hamaamarim Melukat vol. 6 p. 72 and references noted there.

[13] The significance of closing the door is that if you wish that your cruse of oil fill your life with inner meaning and fulfillment, you must put a stop to your addictive habits and your immoral actions. You must shut the door and not allow your urges and impulses to become enslaved to foreign forces.


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  • JG

    Jeremy Gordon -3 years ago

    Beautiful, I stumbled across it interested in filling out this Chanukah intersection with this glorious piece of Torah, all blessings,



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  • NM

    Nicci Menashe -3 years ago

    What happens when world leaders say they have no capacity?

    As usual- profound words from a profound man. Thank you. I have a question. What happens if we, in the service of HaShem are working overtime to do His work and we approach a world leader for help with this and the world leader tells us he has no capacity... Whilst my own faith in HaShem's plan is strong that we are on the right path, his response has unnerved me a great deal and I would like to know the appropriate way to respond with respect but strength to such a statement .... Can you help me ? 

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • ES

    Eliyahou Serfaty -3 years ago

    Such profound intriguing wisdom. A home run once again. 

    Rabbi you uniquely explain the words of the baal hatanya like always 

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • NG

    Noami Grossberger -4 years ago

    So inspiring!!! I was feelling a bit discouraged when I suddenly found this in my inbox. It was exactly what I needed to hear and I'm feeling so much better already from reading this. Excellent message. Thank you so much for constantly inspiring me and uplifting me! Wishing you continued Hatzlacha in empowering to live up to the awesomeness planted inside them from G-d.

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • CF

    Chaia Frishman -4 years ago

    I have listened to this shiur in the audio version no less than six times. It is timeless and gives hope to the value of every human being. Rabbi YY, thank you for continuing to encourage klal Yisroel with this deep Torah and make each person realize their significance in our global village.

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Essay Vayeira

Rabbi YY Jacobson
  • November 10, 2011
  • |
  • 13 Cheshvan 5772
  • |
  • Comment

Dedicated by David and Eda Schottenstein, In the loving memory of Alta Shula Swerdlov and in the merit of Yetta Alta Shula, "Aliya," Schottenstein

Class Summary:

When You’re Bored with Life - The Desire for Desire

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