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D'var Torah by Dr. Kalman Stein, Interim Head of School

Dr. Kalman Stein, Head of School

Dear Hebrew Academy Community:

As we come close to concluding the process of searching for and destroying every bit of Chametz in our homes it seems appropriate to ask a simple question: Why does God seem to have such an aversion to Chametz? Every school child knows why we do not eat Chametz during the week of Pesach. One of the highlights of the Seder is a question and response from the Mishnah in Pesachim”: מצה זו על שום מה?—What is the meaning of the matzah that we eat? Because the dough of our ancestors did not have time to leaven before God revealed Himself to them and redeemed them.” And we all know the Pasuk in Devarim (16:3) in reference to the Pesach Sacrifice: “Do not eat Chametz with it; for seven days you are to eat matzah because you departed from Egypt in great haste…”

That explains why we may not eat, use or own Chametz during Pesach. But although the Torah makes this very clear both in last week’s and this week’s Parasha, many fewer people are aware that there is a prohibition of the use of Chametz throughout the year. In Parashat Vayikra (2:11) we are told that the Korban Mincha—the meal or grain offering which consists of flour, oil, and frankincense—may not be made Chametz, because neither leaven nor honey may ever, at any time, be brought as a sacrifice on the altar. In this week’s Parasha we similarly learn that the portion of the Mincha offering which is consumed by the priests must be baked as matzah, not as Chametz. Needless to say, the prohibition of Chametz in the service in the Mishkan and Beit HaMikdash has nothing to do with the events of the Exodus. This, of course, leads back to our opening question: Why is Hashem so averse to Chametz that He bans it from His altar?

Rambam’s purely rationalist approach is simply that this is one of many Torah Laws designed to differentiate our worship of God from that of the pagan world: The idolaters always included leavened bread in their sacrifices so we are never permitted to do so.

Other commentators, however, see a more metaphoric/spiritual objection to Chametz. Rabbi Isaac ben Judah Abarbanel (1437–1508) argues that leaven symbolizes the Yetzer HaRa, the evil inclination, that is, the force within us which leads us, if we do not resist it forcefully enough, to sin and inappropriate behavior. He apparently draws this idea from the prayer of Rabbi Alexanderi in Brachot (17a): “It is clear to You (Hashem) that our desire is to do Your will. And what prevents us from doing so? It is the Se’or, the fermenting agent, in the dough. Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffmann (Germany 1843-1921) elaborates: The fermenting agent, when left unchecked, begins a process of decay and, therefore, symbolizes moral corruption. One can readily understand why Hashem would ban that symbolism from the Mikdash.

Rabbi Moshe Alshich (Turkey and Eretz Yisrael 1508-1593) adds that matzah, consisting solely of flour and water, represents unadorned simplicity Therefore, as one approaches God with an offering, only matzah, the simple product which does not require human ingenuity, and which thus symbolizes our total dependence on Hashem, is acceptable. 

The Ba’al HaTanya, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady, (1745-1812), the founder of Chabad Chassidut, adds that matzah does not have even a hint of arrogance, as opposed to Chametz which puffs itself up and rises, thereby becoming symbolic of haughtiness, a trait which should have no place in our lives and certainly not in our approach to God. 

As we sit down to eat matzah next Wednesday night it is instructive to remember that this ritual commandment also includes within it moral/ethical signposts, urging us to be aware that our lives as Jews should be characterized by inwardness, modesty, humility, and purity.

Dr. Kalman Stein
Head of School

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