Presented at Congregation Ezra Bessaroth, Seattle WA – Perashat Emor 5771
Pesach food sales in the United States make up about 40% of America’s annual 4 billion dollar kosher food sales income, this year topping 1.8 billion dollars. Prior to Passover 2011, more than 18,000 food items were certified Kosher for Passover. All to avoid eating that dreaded chametz!
Before the holiday, we had to divest ourselves of chametz, either by consuming, burning or selling it. Our fear of chametz is so great – that if someone were to be cooking a huge pot of vegetable soup, and another person were to come by and accidentally drop a crumb of chametz in that soup – the entire soup must be tossed out! On Pesach, the normal rules of “bitul“, dilution, do not apply.
Question: Why is it that chametz is so reviled? Why could we have not just eaten matzah on the Seder night to relive the Exodus – and have had bread the rest of the Chag? Has the Torah gone a bit overboard here? A bit obsessive ?
Chametz: What Does It Represent?
One theory as to why chametz is so problematic is that it’s associated with idolatrous practices. According to the Zohar, one who eats chametz on Pesach is as if he has worshipped idols!
Another possibility may lie in the Gemara, Tractate Berachot: The Talmud records that following his Tefillah, Rebbe Alexandri used to say: “It is obvious to you, G-d, that we want to do Your will. But what stops us? The leaven in the dough!” In other words, chametz represents haughtiness, a person’s evil inclination. On the eve of Pesach, we must examine every nook and cranny of our homes and our hearts to route out the Yetzer Hara….
Some of you may not know, but I read lips.. and I can see that a few of you out there are asking each other, “Why is this rabbi dwelling on chametz and Pesach; didn’t we JUST finish Pesach 2 weeks ago?”
Emor’s Holiday Review
Well, you see I would have been glad to do so — had it not been for the fourth- fifth and sixth Aliyah in this week’s Torah portion, Perashat Emor: Today, the Torah gave us an exhaustive review of the laws of all the Torah-based holidays, starting with Pesach and culminating with Succot – no less than 44 pesukim!
In this unit, the Torah records the Mitzvah of Sefirat H’aomer – a mitzvah we will discuss later this afternoon – and tells us that after 49 days of counting – on the 50th day – we are to bring a Korban, a sacrifice, made of fine flour – and baked into chametz loaves!
Now, if it was true that chametz is a symbol of either idolatry or the Yetzer hara, then why is it forbidden only on Pesach? It should be proscribed all year round!
Moreover, if Shavuot is the culmination of a process that starts with Pesach, why is chametz forbidden with the exodus from Egypt, but allowed – even celebrated – a mere 7 weeks later? Not only to eat – but as an offering to G-d?
Pesach & Shavuot: Linked by Leaven
What is the Torah’s official name for Pesach? Chag Hamatzot – the Festival of Unleavened Bread; “Pesach” is really the name of the Korban, the sacrifice, that we must consume on the first night.
Aside from not being identified by its specific date in the text of the Torah, Shavuot has another strange aspect:. Usually, the Torah mentions what day a specific Chag is on, and then it instructs us what to do on that day. Shavuot is just the opposite: the Torah says to count – then to bring the special chametz sacrifice on the 50th day. Only then does the Torah says that the day must be a Yom Tov, a holiday. In other words, we aren’t bringing a korban on Shavuot; Rather, we observe the chag on the day that we bring the korban!
What is the meaning of this transition from matzah to chametz?
What lessons are we supposed to learn from this?
Let It Be…For a While
Rabbi Ezra Bick, a teacher at the Hesder Yeshiva, Har Etzion, raises these questions and offers a fascinating response:
What do we notice about challah dough after it is left to sit for a while, especially in a warm place?
Of course, it rises. Left in the oven without supervision or intervention – it inflates and grows in an unbelievable way! The dough’s hidden potential is expressed, it becomes manifest.
Obviously, actualizing potential is a positive, not a negative thing ! In fact, it would be fair to say that the Torah’s whole agenda for our people is to bring out our potential as individuals and as a nation…
That said, the development of something, when left on its own, without guidance, can have disastrous results. Without structure, premature expression of potential may well lead to anarchy.
In the Passover context, one who suddenly becomes free — should not allow all of his previously suppressed drives and inclinations to run wild, to express themselves. It is at this point – the moment of freedom – that a person must eat matzah, must hold himself back, while he slowly develops a sensitivity and awareness of his potential….
Seven weeks had to pass, counting every day, while the Jewish people waited for the giving of the Torah. During this time, they meditated on the infinite possibilities lying before them.
Applying the Message to a Communal Context
How does this relate to the life of a synagogue, of your congregation?
Nachmanides, the Ramban, says that after the giving of the Torah on Mt.Sinai, the Jewish people built the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. The Mishkan captured the spirituality of the Sinaitic experience. In the course of time, that Mishkan arrived in the Land of Israel, ultimately transformed into the Beit Hamikdash.
Our sages teach us that every synagogue today is a Mikdash Me’at – a miniature Temple.
What functions does a synagogue serve?
On one level, mirroring the giving of the Torah on Har Sinai, the synagogue is an educational institution. Just as at Mt. Sinai, we learned Torah, to know how to behave as a nation, we come to synagogue to learn Torah.
On another level, mirroring the function of the Mishkan, the synagogue is a house of worship. We come to spiritually connect with G-d.
The synagogue also serves a third function:
In the Haggada, we sang, “If you had brought us to Har Sinai and not have given us the Torah – that would have been enough for us!”
Commentators ask, “Why would it have been enough for us? What good would standing at the foot of the mountain have been had it not been followed by Matan Torah?”
The answer is that at Sinai, we also coalesced into one nation – כאיש אחד בלב אחד – as one man with one heart. We became a people, a Jewish community. The synagogue also plays this role, that of a Bet Haknesset – a gathering place for the community.
In every congregation there are those that are drawn primarily to the Torah study offered; others, though they value Torah study, connect more to the Tefillah, the prayers, their customs, tunes and melodies… A third group is drawn by the simple feeling of Kahal, of community that a synagogue provides.
Whatever one’s focus, the time between Pesach and Shavuot is a time for us to orient ourselves towards the synagogue as the center of our community, a time to slowly ponder our priorities – as each of us – with the help of the Kahal – strives to actualize his potential.