The Old and the New: The Menorah's Ancient Oil
The little jar of oil that lasted for eight nights has an interesting history behind it. According to a midrash, the olives from which it was originally pressed were none other then the fruit of the olive branch that the dove brought to Noach at the end of the Great Flood. Saved by Noach, this ancient oil was later passed on to his son Shem, who passed it to Avraham, all the way down to David and Shlomo, the builder of the Temple. While in the posession of Yaakov, this little jar of oil was among the small jars that he nearly left behind the night before his fated encounter with Esav.
Why did Yaakov go back and retrieve the little jars that he had left behind? It wasn't as if he was so poor that he needed every little thing. To the contrary - we are repeatedly informed beforehand and afterwards that Yaakov had grown very wealthy during his time with Lavan! Were a few small jars so important that he had to take time out - the night before a possible battle, no less - to head out alone and collect them?
In today's world, there is a strong inclination toward throwing away the old in favor of the new. We live in a society where it is easier to buy disposable plates and silverware and throw them away after one use, rather than to acquire things that last. When a new phone or computer comes along, we are encouraged to make room for the new by disposing of the old. This mentality has not only been detrimental to our character as a culture, but to the world we live in as well.
This philosophy of 'out with the old, in with the new' also applies to the intellectual spheres. The academia that derives from Classical culture values novelty above all else. It focuses greatly on those who discovered or recorded a phenomenon for the first time - a theory or discovery often takes the name of the one who first identified it (Copernican system, Newtonian physics, Darwinian evolution), yet little attention is given to the thousands of thinkers who develop it later and work out its early errors. Only the new ideas matter - everything else is just 'old news'.
The ideology deriving from Greek culture focuses on the ages where a person is in their peak physical condition, and the time when they are most likely to come up with novel ideas - the early twenties and thirties. Never mind the wisdom that can come in later years, or the leadership capabilities that are born of experience - by the age of forty, a person is seen as being 'over the hill', with only 'decline' ahead of them. Out with the old, in with the new.
The oil of Noach's olive branch was the very first produce from the natural world after the Flood. Not only is it a symbol of the extremely ancient, it was also the symbol of a destroyed world that was once again being given into the hands of humankind. With this entitlement came a renewal of humanity's original responsibility toward the natural world, to protect it and make sure to utilize it with care. It hardly seems like a coincidence that this oil should be associated with Yaakov's little jars. By demonstrating his appreciation for the old as well as the care not to throw away things unnecessarially, Yaakov connected himself to both of these early messages in a powerful way.
The battle between the Maccabees and the Greeks could be thought of as a battle between the progressive and the traditional. The Greek philosophy was very much focused on the 'here and now'. It was all about newness, both in the material and intellectual realms.
The Hellenistic culture in ancient times was very liberal and 'progressive'. It was a culture which welcomed everyone, and forced everyone to welcome everyone else. Their inclusiveness and desire to include all religious beliefs obligated them to bring idols into the Temple in Jerusalem - an outrage to the 'outdated' Jewish ideal of monotheism.
The Chashmonaim heard this, and decided to fight in the name of G-d. The victory of the Maccabees against the Greek armies was a victory of the old over the new. It was a victory of those who retained that which was held sacred by their ancestors, over the ideals of those who sought to discard the old in favor of novelty.
The symbol of the steadily burning oil was the perfect symbol for this victory. It was the ancient oil from the beginning of the new world, the oil of the responsibility of ownership, the oil that was not discarded and forgotten even when it was left behind. Even when set alight, it continued to burn steadily, far past the time that logic would say it should have gone out. It was - and is - the light of the endurance of the ancient in the face of the new.