Details Matter – Va-Yikra 5779

D'var Torah | Leviticus

The insights into life offered by the Torah exist as much in the minor details as in the major plot lines. The opening chapters of the Book of Leviticus are a case in point. The details regarding sacrificial offerings seem an unlikely source of enlightenment. But as is often the case, grand lessons emerge from seemingly trivial sources.


Every meal offering brought to the altar must not include leaven (Leviticus 2:11). Dr. Joseph H. Hertz explains that leaven was regarded as a symbol of corruption. Leavening is a process of fermentation. Sin, the rabbis imagined, was a process of moral fermentation. The rising of the dough might be compared to the bloating of the ego. And those who have an inflated sense of self are often on the road to sin. Hence, the only offering suitable for a sacrificial offering is the unfermented kind. Unleavened bread is the ideal. It represents the pure and incorruptible. Leavened bread is flawed and undesirable.


Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch takes the opposite view. To Hirsch, the unleavened loaves symbolize Israel’s political dependence. Unleavened bread, known as matzah, was the food of slaves. In Egypt, the Israelites lacked the luxury of time to allow their dough to rise. Hence, they ate unleavened bread. Having reached freedom, Israelites could now enjoy real bread, leavened bread. But, surprisingly, and perhaps to their chagrin, the Israelites were now commanded to bring the bread of slaves to the altar rather than the bread of free men. Hirsch argues that the lesson included in this rule is that the Israelites are not free of servitude. Rather, they have exchanged the brutal servitude of Pharaoh to the benign servitude of God. The unleavened loaves brought to the altar are a perpetual reminder to the Israelites that while saved from an earthly master, they are indebted to a heavenly master.


From Hertz’s perspective, the meal offering is an object lesson in living purely and sinlessly. From Hirsch’s perspective, the meal offering is a reminder to live in service to God. The perspectives are different but equally plausible and inspiring. And both emerge from a seemingly insignificant scriptural source.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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