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Parashat 03/19/2010

Parashat Vayikra

submitted by Robert Rabinoff

Since Pesach is coming up very soon I thought we might turn to a requirement that pertains to all offerings made on the altar.  In verse 2:11 Gd tells us

… you shall not allow anything containing leavening or honey to be burned as a fire-offering to HaShem.

The Ba’al HaTurim comments:

Because the Evil Inclination is compared to leavening.  And for the same reason we are warned about honey, because the Evil Inclination is as sweet to a person as honey.

It seems almost as if every day is Pesach in the Temple, for there is very little room for leavening in any of the activities that are carried on there (the two notable exceptions are the Two Loaves of leavened bread that are offered on Shavuot, and the leavened loaves that are brought in conjunction with the Thanksgiving-Offering – neither of these offerings are brought up to the Altar).  However the Ba’al HaTurim’s comment doesn’t really answer the question why.  Why should the Evil Inclination be compared to leavening, and why should matzah be associated with freedom?

First let’s consider the nature of leavening.  Leavening is what makes bread rise, all fluffy and soft.  It does so essentially by filling the spaces in the dough with air.  A personal example.  When I was about 8 my mother A”H sent me to the store to buy a loaf of bread.  Even in those early days of television, I knew that “Wonder Bread helps build strong bodies 12 ways,” so I headed to the grocery store for a loaf of Wonder Bread.  When I brought it home my mother smiled and said “Come here, I want to show you something.”  She took a slice of this bread and crushed it in her hand until it was about the size of a quarter.  She then instructed me that in the future I should be sure to go to the local bakery and get a rye bread whenever I was sent to the store.  Sliced (back then you had to ask for them to slice it for you…).

So leavening leads to a bread that is puffed-up and insubstantial, full of air and not nearly as impressive as it looks.  This is why leavening is compared to the characteristic of arrogance, while unleavened bread is called lechem oni, “poor bread,” but which can also be translated “bread of affliction” or “bread of humility.”

Now it is clear that there is no room for arrogance at all in the Temple.  In the Temple we stand before Gd, Who created the heavens, the earth, and us.  Gd is at once infinite and transcendent, and also permeates every little aspect of created reality.  In fact, on one level, Gd is the only reality.  Next to Gd’s awesome grandeur, what are we, what have we accomplished, what ultimate meaning do our lives have?

As much as this is true for the Temple, when we really think about it, Gd is everywhere.  King David writes (Tehillim 16:8) Sheviti H” l’negdi tamid – I have placed H” before me constantly.  The Rema writes, in his introduction to the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) that this is the fundmental principle of Jewish life – remembering that Gd is with us wherever we are.  On the one hand we take comfort from this fact, but on the other side whenever we start to feel or act puffed up, we need to remind ourselves of our insignificant position relative to the Creator.

But why is leavening compared to the Evil Inclination?  Let us try to understand what is at the basis of the Evil Inclination.  The Kabbalists tell us that in order for Gd to create the universe, He had to first “contract” some of his infinite essence in order to leave “space” for finitude to exist.  The very existence of finite creatures, so absolutely and radically different from their infinite Creator, implies a separation between the two.  Human beings, who have self-consciousness, must therefore choose – either merge back into the infinite or expend the energy to maintain a separate, individual existence.  It is our constant effort to distinguish ourselves from Gd, by flouting Gd’s Will, that is the Evil Inclination.  We fear a loss of our finite self if we were to merge into our infinite Self; consequently we try to expand, puff up, our small individuality on its own, finite, terms.

The prohibition of leavening in the Temple and during Pesach, is Gd’s way of gently reminding us that there is a better way.  The root of the word korban, offering, means to draw close.  The secondary meaning is of course a sacrifice.  By sacrificing an animal or bird or flour and oil, we come close to Gd.  By giving something of ourselves, something that we have put our time and energy into, we join our small, finite selves with Gd.  In this way we are not losing our individuality, rather we are expanding it and enriching it by suffusing it with the infinite value from which it came.