Tzav 5778 (Leviticus 6:1 – 8:36)

Rabbi David Stav

This Shabbat, we will read Parashat Tzav. It is also the Shabbat the precedes the Passover holiday, and is widely known as “Shabbat Hagadol” – or the “Great Sabbath”. Some attribute this to the great miracle that occurred on that day, when the Jews tied sheep to their bed posts without fearing the Egyptians, while others mention the Haftarah that speaks of a great and awesome “day of God” sometime in the future.

On this Shabbat, rabbis traditionally dedicate their sermons to a discussion of the holiday, and some see this as the reason for the moniker – namely, that the gedolim, the great sages, address the public.

Our weekly reading, Tzav, continues the Torah’s discussion of the laws of the sacrifices, but this time, it does so from the vantage point of the priests serving in the Temple. This is in contrast to last week’s reading, which described the world of sacrifices as seen by the individual bringing the offering. Here, as in the previous reading, the Torah distinguishes between the various types of sacrifices.

This time, let’s delve deeper into the verse on how the Minha wheat-offering was baked. The text describes how Aaron and the priests eat the leftovers of the Minha offering, after a small bit of it had been removed and burnt on the altar: “And Aaron and his sons shall eat whatever is left over from it. It shall be eaten as unleavened bread in a holy place; they shall eat it in the courtyard of the Tent of Meeting” [Lev. 6:9].

Twice, the Torah emphasizes that the Minha offering and its leftovers are to be baked as matzah, and it should by no means be allowed to leaven. The obvious question is why? We always knew to associate matzoh and hametz with the exodus from Egypt, and we will even read all about it again soon in the Haggadah: “Why do we eat the matzah? Because our forefathers’ dough did not have enough time to leaven.” But what does the method of baking the Minha offering have to do with the exodus from Egypt?

It would thus seem that we need to take another close look at the story of hametz and matzah on Passover. After all, our war on hametz on Passover is unparalleled in all of Jewish tradition. It begins with a prohibition of eating hametz, and continues on to prohibiting the possession of any hametz in our homes. We are compelled to rummage through our houses in search of the tiniest crumb of hametz, and perform a thorough cleaning in the process.

If even a morsel of hametz had found its way into our other food – the horror! – the entire mixture may not be consumed, notwithstanding the principle of bitul in Jewish law, which under other circumstances renders food permissible if the forbidden ingredient accounts for no more than one sixtieth of the whole.

The situation becomes even more curious when we recall that the day after Passover, we all swoon over any hametz we can get our hands on, as if we hadn’t eaten for several days, when all of our erstwhile disgust towards the stuff vanishes in the blink of an eye and hametz once again feels quite welcome in our kitchens. Even if we go back to the days, or even the entire year, leading up to the holiday, we see that hametz is something we often use to observe many Jewish commandments. It satisfies our hunger, and we need it to make the blessing of hamotzi on bread.

We even explicitly mention bread in our grace after meals, and in the framework of performing many other commandments. So how does this trusty friend become our sworn enemy overnight? How does it always make a comeback after just seven (or eight) days, when it regains its former status with great fanfare?

One great sage, who lived in Egypt about five hundred years ago, wrote that our extreme stringency toward hametz is rooted in the pride it symbolizes. We learn that pride is one of a person’s most important means of achieving progress in life. People who lack aspirations and dreams because they doubt they can succeed in any job or role will not reach too far. In contrast, those who fully believe in their talents will probably progress much faster, and their path will be much more stable.

It is vital for a person to want to advance in life to complete the numerous tasks lying ahead, yet one major question remains. What does a person driven by a will to succeed want to accomplish? Material benefits? Or is it that making a lot of money is a means to making the world a better place?

Suppose a start-up company develops a life-saving device and ends up making a fortune in the process. What makes the owners feel more fulfilled – the fact that they had saved thousands of lives, or their newly-inflated bank accounts? This is the test of hametz and matzah.

We have nothing against hametz, which symbolizes our will to succeed and advance, but we want to steer these aspirations and chart their path. By refraining from eating hametz an entire week, we demonstrate our desire to point our compasses in the right direction. Matzah was eaten in the Holy Temple, just as it is eaten today at the seder table, and it symbolizes how we submit our personality to values that lie on a higher plane than our egos. When we eat matzah at the Seder, we will all be like the priests standing in the Temple and eating nothing but unleavened bread.

When we chant the familiar Passover song, Mah Nishtanah, we become truly free. We focus all our strength in the direction we believe in, and we don’t let our whims get in the way. On seder night, we make our holiday tables a place where the entire nation stands – parents and children, young and old – and exclaim in unison: we know where we came from, and where we are going. We eat the matzah before we embrace the hametz.

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