The Power Of Beginnings
It is written, “They shall take for you pure, pressed olive oil for illumination, to light the lamp continually” (Shemot 27:20). The Sages teach, “There are three [crops of] olives, and each crop gives three kinds of oil. The first crop of olives is when the olives are picked from the top of the tree. They are pounded and put into the basket, yielding the first oil. They are then pressed with the beam, yielding the second oil. They are then ground and pressed again, yielding the third oil. The first [oil] is fit for the Menorah, and the others for the meal-offerings” (Mishnah in Menachot 86:1).
We may ask why the first oil is so special, such that it alone may be used for the Menorah.
We can explain this according a statement in the Midrash: “[G-d says,] ‘Present to Me an opening of repentance no larger than the eye of a needle, and I will widen it into openings through which wagons and carriages may pass.’ Rabbi Tanchuma, Rabbi Hunia, and Rabbi Abahu said in the name of Resh Lakish: It is written, ‘Desist and know that I am G-d’ [Tehillim 46:11]. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel: ‘Desist from your evil deeds and know that I am G-d.’ Rabbi Levi said, ‘Were Israel to practice repentance even for one day, they would be immediately redeemed, and the scion of David would immediately come.’ How do we know this? Because it says, ‘For He is our G-d, and we are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand. Today, if you would but hearken to His voice’ [ibid 95:7]” (Shir HaShirim Rabba 5:3).
The Holy One, blessed be He, asks for only one thing, namely that a person starts with repentance and good deeds. As soon as he begins to repent, the Holy One, blessed be He, will immediately help him to resist the evil inclination. The Sages teach, “One is allowed to follow the path he wishes to pursue” (Makkot 10b), something that depends solely on the beginning, as it is written: “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of Hashem” (Tehillim 111:10). Also, “Now, O Israel, what does Hashem your G-d ask of you? Only to fear” (Devarim 10:12). When we have fear, we have everything; and when we lack fear, we have nothing. Without fear, even repentance is far from perfect.
From here we learn just how important beginnings are. The early Sages said, “Fervor is never greater than at the beginning.” When we start getting used to something, we lose our focus and pay less attention to it. In this regard our Sages have taught: Let it not seem in your eyes like the same old story that nobody can tolerate any longer, but like something new that everyone seeks (Sifrei, Va’etchanan 6:8). When words of Torah become old to someone, they lose their enthusiasm and people observe them out of habit. In that case, they are called “commandments of men learned by rote” (Isaiah 29:13), which people do not observe with full concentration. However when they seem new to someone, enthusiasm returns each day.
The essence of a mitzvah, and indeed the essence of everything, depends on its beginning. Hence the first kind of oil was suitable for the Menorah, thereby hinting to the Children of Israel that if they created an opening as large as the eye of a needle, G-d would widen it into a large opening and enable them to defeat the evil inclination. There is no reason to fear the outcome, for the Sages in the Mishnah have said: “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but you are not free to desist from it” (Pirkei Avoth 2:16). This means that when you start something, G-d will immediately come and help you. A person should not think, “How can I start learning Torah and fulfilling mitzvot? The Torah is so vast, it contains hundreds of extremely important mitzvot, and hundreds of serious sins depend on it! How can I pay attention to it all?” To answer these questions, the Torah says that the first kind of oil was required for the Menorah, meaning that we only need to start, and G-d will help us finish.
This is why the Menorah was lit by the kohen, who remained there until the flame ascended on its own (Shabbat 21a). In fact the Menorah alludes to the Torah, as it is written: “For a mitzvah is a lamp and the Torah is light” (Mishlei 6:23). When a person begins observing a mitzvah and lights it in his heart, the Holy One, blessed be He, helps him and the flame ascends on its own. As the Sages have said, “If one comes to purify himself, he is helped” (Yoma 38b).
They Can Maintain Peace
The power of beginnings is great in every area. Just as a good beginning is of capital importance when it consists of mitzvot, it is also important for everything else. Oftentimes, disputes arise between people or between a man and his wife. Yet because people fail to control themselves at the beginning, when they see faults in others, they instantly get angry and everything degenerates from there. If they were to control themselves at the very beginning – thinking before getting angry, or before saying something that will lead to strife and hatred – they could maintain peace between them.
A wise man possesses the great characteristic of “not rushing to answer” (Pirkei Avoth 5:7), for he gives himself time to think before speaking. As our Sages have said, “The commoner always jumps to the front” (Megillah 12b). We know what Rabbi Israel Salanter said, namely that before a person says anything, he is the master of his words and can choose to speak or not to speak. However once he says something, he can no longer take it back. Even if he regrets it, he has already spoken and can no longer do anything about it.
This is why the Sages have said, “Heaven and earth were created only for the sake of Israel, for it is written: ‘Because of reshith, G-d created Heaven and earth’ [Bereshith 1:1], and reshith cannot mean anything but Israel” (Vayikra Rabba 36:4). The Sages have also said, “The Holy One, blessed be He, created the world only for three things that are called reshith, and these are: Torah, Israel, and the fear of Heaven” (Seder Rabba d’Bereshith 5). When a person starts with Torah and the fear of Heaven, which are a beginning, he becomes worthy for the world to have been created for his sake, and Hashem helps him.
The Gemara gives us a wonderful example of this: “ ‘The fear of Hashem is his treasure’ [Isaiah 33:6]. … This may be compared to a man who instructed his emissary, ‘Bring up a kor of wheat to the loft,’ and he went and did so. ‘Did you mix in a kab of humton [a preservative]?’ he asked him. ‘No,’ he replied. ‘Then it would have been better had you not carried it up,’ he retorted” (Shabbat 31a).