Updated: Mar 2
The famous adage is that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger—though over Covid I heard it adapted as “what doesn’t kill you, mutates and tries again.” Either way, the point is, find yourself in a difficult situation? It’s all good because if you survive you’ll be much stronger after the fact. Life gave you lemons? Make lemonade. And other such cliches.
While that sounds like a positive sentiment, it can also come across as insensitive to those facing hardships with no end in sight. It’s easy for an outsider to say that suffering is okay because you’ll come out stronger on the other side; but for the person struggling to make it through life, not always is making lemonade out of lemons something they care for. They’d much rather not have to deal with the struggles than think about how it is really making them stronger.
Which makes the Talmud’s teaching about the production of olive oil somewhat enigmatic. Only the first and finest drop of every olive was used to kindle the menorah in the Temple, and the Torah says that the olives must be crushed in order to extract the oil. The Talmud uses this as an analogy for the Jewish people being crushed leading to our finest contributions to the world. The harsher the persecution of the Jews the greater their drive to survive and, by extension, their production. Some even say that suffering is a prerequisite to greatness.
Yet at the same time, what kind of G-d and what kind of religion would expect their adherents to suffer just in order to achieve a goal? Why couldn’t G-d create the world in a way that greatness can be attained without the need to struggle?
Sure, it’s easy to say “no pain, no gain;” that without sweat and tears there can be no drive to continue climbing and growing. But try telling that to someone caught between a rock and a hard place, someone whose life seems to be falling apart, stuck in the proverbial tunnel with no light at the end. Try telling them that it’s all good while they can barely catch their breaths.
So why compare us to crushed olives and make it sound like a good thing?
The answer lies in the fact that the crushed olives themselves had to be brought to Moses, the first leader of the Jews.
Moses started out as a shepherd, caring and tending to each of his flock with individual attention. But more than just leading his flock as a collective, he nurtured them individually, helping them each be the best they could be based on their own personalities. And he applied this same leadership quality as shepherd of the Jewish people. He served them faithfully, taking each and every individual Jew by the hand, helping them grow and turn into the best version of themselves possible.
Similar qualities can be found in Jewish leaders throughout history, including most famously, Mordechai and Esther, in the story of Purim. The Jews were at an all time low during that period; they were crushed physically by the threat of annihilation, and spiritually due to assimilation and loss of national identity.
Instead of just telling their followers that the reason they are being crushed is because it will make them stronger, or that they are suffering because of their sins, these great leaders encouraged and helped build up their followers’ esteem. They didn’t just tell them that everything will be fine if you keep treading water, they infused them with the devotion to Torah that allowed them to ignore the struggle and instead focus on the opportunities. That’s not turning lemons into lemonade, that’s ignoring the lemons in the first place.
So the crushed olive is brought to Moses. Only with his leadership can the persecuted Jewish soul discover the quality within itself, that it is pure oil to kindle the menorah and bring light to the world.
Leaders like Moses and Mordechai have souls rooted on a far loftier plane than the rest of us. So by connecting with them, allowing them to nurture us and raise us to their level, that allows us to rise up and face adversity head on. It's not the crushing that gets us there, it's the connection to something higher.
Sure, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but when we have great Jewish leaders, we come to learn that it’s not about the struggle but about the dedication to something bigger than ourselves.
May we all live to see the day that there will be no more struggles, real or perceived, and that it will be clear as day how everything we’ve been through was for the ultimate purpose—the refinement of the world and the coming of Moshiach.