Judaism: Sweet and Sour
Summary by Channie Koplowitz Stein
The first portion of Leviticus, Vayikra, includes some of the laws pertaining to the Meal offering, the mincha. The laws include two ingredients that must be excluded from the offering, leavening and honey, and one which must be included, salt.
While Rambam tells us that all the laws pertaining to the sacrifices are chukim, laws for which we as humans cannot know the reasons and which we must obey and observe simply because they are the will of Hashem, we can nevertheless study them to extract some truth for our lives through these laws.
Along these lines, Rabbi Reiss in Meirosh Tzurim offers a beautiful explanation. The offerings, as their smoke rises to the heavens, are meant to bring a pleasant aroma before Hashem, a "reiach nichoach". The most pleasant “aroma’ we can offer is to do as God commands without additions that we feel would enhance the mitzvah, whether we understand God’s reasons or not. Therefore at Sinai we proclaimed naaseh – we will do, before proclaiming nishma – we will hear. Even today, without the Temple, the Beit Hamikdosh, our Torah observance must also be first “we will do” even without understanding the principles behind a particular command.
With that in mind, we can nevertheless explore some lessons for our lives from these laws. First, Rabbi Gamliel Horowitz in Tiv Hatorah discusses the essence of leavening and of honey. Leavening represents the attitude that things are not right and need to be improved, while honey implies that everything is sweet and wonderful. These ingredients then can be likened to depression or feelings of unworthiness, and arrogance, I’m great and don’t need to improve. Neither of these attitudes has a place on the altar, for one must create a balance of the two within himself so that he is neither paralyzed from moving forward by feelings of inadequacy, or unwilling to change due to arrogance. Either of these mindsets can hold us back from working toward achieving our potential.
The seor, leavening, which is the essence of chametz (leavened flour), and honey can be symbolic of the yetzer horo, the evil inclination, writes Rabbi Frand citing Rabbeinu Bachye. Focusing on chametz, there are two prohibitions on Pesach, not to see chametz, and not to have chametz in one’s possession. The prohibition against seeing chametz parallels our actions while the prohibition against owning chametz parallels our thoughts, so that neither our thoughts nor our actions should carry sin within them. It is precisely because of sin that we were commanded to bring offerings on the altar, so it follows that one should not mix our offerings with the symbols of the enticer and corrupter that brought us to sin.
How is leavening similar to the yetzer horo? Rabbi Frand cites the explanation of Rabbi Avigdor Neventzal, the Rabbi of the Old City of Yerushalayim. How does leavening work? When adding leavening to dough, through a chemical process, bubbles start to form that make the dough rise until it fills the entire bowl. But in fact, there is nothing there except empty bubbles, fluff. If you stick your finger into the dough, the bubbles burst and the dough falls flat. The yetzer horo is also no more than fluff, a mere illusion that seems more attractive in the anticipation than in the reality. Punch it down and deflate it before it grows and overpowers you.
Rabbi Moshe Chayim Dandrovitz in Imrei Chemed expounds on this idea. Yeast works when it is left alone. When we are motivated from Above to do something, the yetzer horo tells us to take it easy, to leave well enough alone, be complacent. If we respond by doing something, we deflate the yetzer horo. Similarly, honey also serves as a symbol of the yetzer horo, continues Rabbi Dandrovitz. Everything that falls into honey is absorbed by it and cannot retain its uniqueness. The yetzer horo wants us to fall back into our sweet, easy life and not work toward self improvement and growth. In short, as the Sefer Hachinuch points out, the moral lesson we can gain is not to become sluggish, for leavening is a slow process, and honey symbolizes the sweet life of self indulgence.
The character flaw of laziness is especially insidious, points out Rabbi Chaim Friedlander, the Sifsei Chaim. With other flaws such as anger, or jealousy, one is aware of doing something wrong, but laziness is something we take in stride as part of the flow of life (not to be confused with some necessary down time to regroup). The kohanim in their service in the Temple were always moving and working. Similarly, on Pesach we are serving Hashem, and we must not allow idleness, symbolized by chametz, leavened products, to taint our service to Hakodosh Boruch Hu.
Rabbi Yaakov Hillel, in Ascending the Ladder, discusses the works of Rabbi Luzzato of Path of the Just. He points out how laziness is completely counterproductive to observing mitzvoth, for if doing a mitzvah is at an inconvenient time, the lazy one will dispense with the mitzvah. Being an observant Jew takes effort, and a desire to live the comfortable life will keep one from that effort, as sleep becomes more important than attending morning services and finishing one’s meal at leisure steals the moment a chessed, good deed, can be done for another. If we habituate ourselves to a life of leisure, we will be unable to rise to the occasion when the opportunity for a mitzvah presents itself.
It’s not that we must live an ascetic life, writes Rabbi Scheinerman, quoting Rabbi Feinstein. We have opportunities to enjoy the pleasures of this world, particularly on Shabbos and Yom Tov when we are even commanded to eat festive meals. But it is not even a matter of what is permissible, for just because something is“kosher” doesn’t mean we have to indulge. Where is our pleasure in the spiritual, in learning a new commentary? Instead, we indulge in frivolous pleasures.
The Saba of Kelm pointed out to his son that everyone has playthings. Children play with toys while adults indulge in their toys. The difference is that children know they are children playing while adults often do not realize they are playing at life.
But life does not have to be somber. We live in a physical world, and physical pleasure is available. We are permitted to enjoy life, writes Rabbi Yaakov Hillel, but we must strike a balance so that pleasure itself becomes a way of enhancing our spirituality. While we are commanded to enjoy life, we must also be aware that our purpose is not pleasure but to exert ourselves for a cause. Will that cause be pleasure or spiritual? If we allow ourselves to be swallowed up by comfort and pleasure, and focus on increasing the material aspects of our lives, we will never climb out and enjoy the spiritual pleasures of life.
In Growth Through Torah Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, using the writings of Rabbi Gifter sums up our ideas cogently and beautifully. Both yeast and honey are external additives that change the flavor and texture of the initial ingredients, and therefore they were not permitted on the altar. Salt, on the other hand, enhances the inherent flavor of the ingredients themselves. Therefore salt was always a part of the sacrifices. What we are to learn, writes Rabbi Pliskin, is that we are not to be like the yeast and the honey that try to find growth outside ourselves, but rather to strive to be like the salt that uses our innate talents and characteristics to develop ourselves to reflect our unique spiritual potential.
It is not necessary to understand why Hashem commanded us with specific laws to be performed in specific manners. What is important is that even though we perform Hashem’s mitzvoth because it is His will, and we cannot understand His reasons for each mitzvah, we still can grow and learn from the details of the mitzvoth in the gift of His Torah.