“It shall not be baked with leaven; I have given it as their portion from My offerings by fire; it is most holy, like the sin offering and the guilt offering” (Leviticus 6:10).
In just a few short hours one of my favorite times of the year will be upon us, Leil HaSeder, Seder Night. But before Seder Night arrives this Saturday night, we have Shabbat, and the Torah portion of Tzav. We will again read about the sacrifices that the priests bring on the altar, but this time it will be as a direct command from Moshe to Aaron with some details that we didn’t get last week. But there is also an incredible connection to matzah and Pesach.
In last week’s blog I discussed the challenges relating to animal sacrifice. But there is a sacrifice which is not from an animal: the mincha offering. It is a combination of flour and oil; part is burned on the altar with frankincense, a fragrant spice, and the other part is eaten by the priests.
Surprisingly, we read that this offering must be leaven-free. With a little bit of investigation, we also learn that all the mincha offerings which are brought to the Temple must all be free of chametz, with one notable distinction: the shnei halechem, or the two loaves which are brought for Shavuot. But all other mincha offerings must be free of leaven. Why?
The Talmud in Tractate Brachot page 17A says the following: “After Rabbi Alexandri prayed, he would say the following: Master of the Universe, it is revealed and known before You that our will is to perform Your will, and what prevents us? The yeast in the dough…”
What is the yeast in the dough, and why does it prevent us from doing God’s will? In Rabbinic literature, the yeast in the dough is a euphemism for the Yetzer Harah, the evil inclination. Though we might not know it by that name, as human beings we are all very familiar with this desire, each of us in our own way.
It’s the drive to take another spoonful of ice cream even after we’ve almost finished the pint. It’s the voice that tells us to have another drink even though we’ve had one too many. It’s the rationalization to keep money that we know isn’t ours, to lie to a loved one, scream at our children, or to look at something inappropriate. And so on and so on…each according to their own desires and challenges.
So the yeast in the dough is a symbol that represents desire; and if it were not for this yeast in the dough, these problematic desires, then we would never get confused. We would stay completely aligned with God’s desire at all times.
But it’s not that simple. Our desire is an integral part of our personality, one that we should not be willing to shed so quickly.
The Talmud in Tractate Yoma tells a story that the rabbis caught and captured the embodiment of the desire for illicit sexual relations; after three days chickens stopped laying eggs.
In other words, the same desire that drives us to go against God’s will also pushes the world forward. It is essential. It is the engine that drives us towards actualization and self-development, if used properly. We have strong motors, and strong motors will go far…as long as they stay on the road. But if they deviate from the path, then they can destroy whatever is in front of them.
And so we come back to matzah and the mincha offerings in the Temple. The Temple, the Cohanim, the Divine presence; these all represent the ideal world, a world free of confusion. It is the place where we are cleansed of delusion and meet face-to-face with sanctity. When we sense the Divine before us, there is no place for deviation.
Imagine that someone tapped you on the shoulder in the middle of the Yom Kippur prayer service and asked you to step outside for a cheeseburger. On Yom Kippur? No way! No one can touch you! Maybe that’s something of the feeling of being at the Temple. There’s absolute clarity; nothing is blurry and there are no shades of gray. There is only what is permitted and what is forbidden.
And so too on Seder night. We hold up the matzah not only as a symbol of the freedom of our ancestors. We hold up the matzah as a symbol of our personal freedom and our true identity, for on Seder Night we too are void of leaven, void of any additives. We are just ourselves, free of confusion about ourselves. We are Jews, the offspring of those great men and women who left Egypt through the strong and mighty hand of the Divine. Any other day we may be Israeli, American, left wing, right wing…complex. But on Seder Night we are simply part of the Nation of Israel who God took out of Egypt, and we tell our story with love and pride.
This Pesach we will not be ascending to the Temple. But as we eat the matzah, which has no leaven, we can taste the Temple, the taste of the mincha offering, a taste of a reality void of confusion and complexity. We can’t live in this space all year, but once a year we can taste something of the mincha offerings on our tongues and the consciousness of the Temple in our hearts.
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Brought to you by the RRG Beit Midrash Program, the spiritual home for Hebrew University students on campus.
In memory of Frayda Laya bat Zorach and Zalman Yaakov ben Avraham Yisrael