Ownership, Hubris and the Sacrificial Conundrum III

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

by R. Francis Nataf, part 3 of 3 (continued from part 1, part 2), excerpted from the forthcoming book, Redeeming Relevance in the Book of Leviticus. Get more information about the publication here.


Part 3: Dr. Frankenstein’s Chametz

If there is no true parallel to our essential connection to our children, there are things that bear the stamp of our unique impact upon it. In that sense, it may be possible to envision such a connection with something, if he we were to reconfigure its makeup in such a way that would never normally occur in the natural world. Without stretching the concept too far, such a process could also be described as creation. And taken to its theoretical limit, this is the story of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster. But one need not go to that disturbing extreme to find examples of the above.

When man imports a chemical reaction to substances that would otherwise not experience them, he is coming very close to creating something of his own. And the most widespread and ancient example of this is leavened bread. The actual science here is secondary, since the Torah concerns itself with the way things appear to most people. What is important is that whatever leavening is used, the dough takes on a new airy property. While no new life is actually created, leavening goes beyond changing the substance – it adds movement to it. The dough will literally rise. And left long enough, the process can actually be quite dramatic, with the dough expanding to several times its original size. Were one not familiar with what is going on, he might indeed feel the wonder and satisfaction of having taken an inanimate and given it life. That being the case, we should think that leavened bread should be the perfect sacrifice: It has most of the advantages of child sacrifice without its serious ethical downside.

Hence the fact that this is not the case requires an explanation. And a good one at that, since chametz is not just part of a long list of what is forbidden on the altar. It is actually on a very short list of two (alongside natural sweetener, devash, which is prohibited in the same verse). 1)Vayikra 2:11. And even on this list, it is singled out as the more problematic of the two.

I believe the explanation is as follows: Human ownership is not one-dimensional. It is true that something that we truly owned would be a much more fitting gift than something we did not, if all other things about it were equal. But all other things are not equal. It is specifically when we can call something our own that our humility is most threatened. Recall the Frankenstein-like feeling we can get by looking at the dough expand, knowing that it is the result of our most decisive input. The pride of offering such a thing is of a different nature than the pride of offering something very expensive, like a large animal. With the latter, the pride is generally felt about one’s ability to amass wealth. But even if the animal was actually raised by the man giving it, the relationship to it remains fairly superficial – it is not that of a creator giving its creation. Not so, however, with chametz. With bread in our hands, we can come to God almost like an equal. And for obvious reasons, this is not what the Torah wants. Instead, the Torah demands that we come to Him with the awareness of a different line in Tehillim than what we read earlier. A more fundamental and pervasive reality is, “To God is the earth and everything in it.” 2)Tehillim 24:1. Everything includes us as well. And it is only with this humble and accurate awareness of the human condition that we can stand with the right attitude in front of God’s altar.

In the final analysis, the limitation on chametz puts the sacrificial relationship in its proper context. With its prohibition, our sacrifices can only resemble that of the infant who receives food from his parent and, in his love for the parent, gives it right back. The act is comic. And for that reason, no competent adult would do it. Yet when it comes to God, this is the situation that we must not only accept, but even embrace. For while the child is able to eventually become independent from the parent, no matter how much a man might rebel, he will always remains completely dependent on God. And though there is an obvious rationale and – as per our discussion – even a certain nobility to it, giving the few things we might somehow call our own to God, ends up being a pitiful display of inauthenticity. As opposed to allowing us to pretend we are what we are not, the Torah designs sacrifices as a tool to develop the role actually given to us. For acknowledging that dependence – even while we express our love – is an essential component of the proper relationship to God.

Of Chametz and Chametz

For most of us, there is an altogether different association with chametz, nearly impossible to sideline whenever the word comes up. And that is the monumental concern that has developed around it before and during Pesach. That being the case, we would be remiss if we did not even mention its possible connection with our discussion.

Though not all commentators agree, it is likely that the two prohibitions of chametz are not totally disparate, and that there at least be some common ground. Netziv is one of the commentators that builds on this axiom. For him – and similar to what we said above – chametz represents a human machination and an attempt to alter God’s creation. In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with using what God gave us to improve our lot. Indeed, it is sometimes a commandment to do so. But apparently not in all contexts. As Netziv puts it, “the closer one comes to God, the more fitting is it to minimize the machinations of man.” 3)Ha’amek Devar Vayikra 2:11. See also Ha’amek Devar on Shemot 13:3. That is because these processes tend to distort our true relationship with God. It gives the appearance of human independence, something which can all too easily lead to the forgetting of God about which the Torah so frequently warns.

For the one who stands before God’s presence in the Temple, the inappropriateness of such a stance is fairly obvious. But one could ask why Pesach would be more deserving of this type of awareness than the other holidays. Moreover – and like our query about chametz on the altar – this prohibition would seem to come with a not insignificant downside. Like any other holiday, and perhaps even more so, 4)As the first night of Pesach is one of only two holiday meals that are absolutely mandatory, the other one being the first night of Sukkot. proper leavened bread (usually, what we call Challah) would certainly add to the banquet-like atmosphere that is called for. It is true that once legislated, matzah has taken a special place in Jewish hearts. But this is only after the fact. Were we not to know this law, there is no question that we would think of matzah as a much less festive substitute for what would otherwise be one of the meal’s staples.

Netziv responds that Pesach is different for its very essence is the inculcation of faith. While there is such a component to all of the holidays, there is little doubt that the Exodus from Egypt is the central pillar of Jewish faith in God, and that Pesach serves as its primary commemoration. 5)See Chapter Seven in Redeeming Relevance in Exodus (Jerusalem: Urim Publications, 2010) entitled The Zikaron of Pesach for elaboration of this idea. According to his (and our) understanding of chametz, this basic foodstuff could not help but impede the greater idea of the festival. For in building our faith in God, what is critical is an understanding of His total power and a healthy awareness of the totally dependent nature of our relationship with Him – the feeling of human power we have with the creation of chametz is clearly antithetical to this. So while there may be times and places for celebrating the abilities God has granted us and the accomplishments that have come from them, a holiday of faith is not one of them.

Coming Full Circle

We began our discussion with the observation that gifting to God was modeled on gifting to other people. As we then noted, adapting such a very human institution to God came with some difficulties, and that is why it was only attempted by mankind’s second generation. One of the biggest problems encountered was that man has nothing to give God that God does not own already. And seemingly making matters worse, the Torah came along and forbade the two things towards which man might come with some claim of ownership – hence the things that would make the most sense for humans to give Him – people and leaven. But we also saw that it is these very restrictions that allow man to develop his sense of humility and know his place in front of God.

But it is not only in front of God that humility is appropriate. Humility is a key trait in interacting with other people. And so, it is a trait that needs to be maintained in the gifting process between people as well. For it would seem that along with all of the good that even the most sincere gifting does, it automatically comes along with a certain hubris. That I have the ability to give you something you would not otherwise have cannot but create a certain amount of pride, even if subconscious. In the best of circumstances when the giver is focused on showing love to the recipient, it is a naturally hierarchical situation wherein the giver is coming from a place of superiority, at least within the specific act. That being the case, it would make sense to not only learn about gifting to God from gifting to man, but also visa-versa.

When we first looked at the two-tiered composition of gifting, we noted that the basic functional aspect of providing someone with something they can use is just as integral as its emotive aspect of relationship-building. Yet given the hubris created by this functional content, gifting of this kind falls short of being ideal. Rather, it comes out that the sacrifices – which were learned from man’s actions towards man –turn around and actually teach us the true model for giving to other people. That sacrificial model teaches that ideal gifting is when there is no hubris-laden functional side to it, but is rather all emotive. Like most Godly ideals, it may take a long time to implement, but it is certainly one we must develop.

As the world becomes wealthier and – at least on that level –closer to a utopian situation, there will be more and more people that literally already have everything. But the answer to how you find a gift for the ever more common man or woman who has everything is not to find something so new or exotic that you can still delight them. The real answer is to develop the elevated consciousness that understands that man’s world can never serve as an ultimate model for dealing with God. It is always going to be the opposite –understanding how God interacts with humans will always be what edifies us in how to deal with other humans, ourselves. Understanding that in the context of gifting will teach us to give and receive ‘useless’ gifts with great joy – just like God. It will also make us understand that when we give gifts, it is only a physical embodiment of something deeper and much more profound.

Hence when we truly study the world of sacrifices, we will come to a true and internalized appreciation that when it comes to gifts, it really is only the thought that counts.


Endnotes   [ + ]

1.Vayikra 2:11.
2.Tehillim 24:1.
3.Ha’amek Devar Vayikra 2:11. See also Ha’amek Devar on Shemot 13:3.
4.As the first night of Pesach is one of only two holiday meals that are absolutely mandatory, the other one being the first night of Sukkot.
5.See Chapter Seven in Redeeming Relevance in Exodus (Jerusalem: Urim Publications, 2010) entitled The Zikaron of Pesach for elaboration of this idea.

About Francis Nataf

Rabbi Francis Nataf is a Jerusalem-based educator and thinker. His most recent book is Redeeming Relevance in the Book of Leviticus.

Leave a Reply