Unleavened offerings of our hearts (Radical Torah repost)
March 23, 2009
Here's the post I wrote for this week's portion back in 2006, originally published at Radical Torah.
Parashat Vayikra plunges us headlong into the sacrificial system. In many liberal congregations, we brace ourselves for what feels like a descent into an old and inaccessible mode of interacting with God. Yearlings and doves, blood and oil -- surely this avodah is as distant as can be from the avodat ha-lev, the "service of the heart," that we offer today?
Our first challenge is that the English word we use -- "sacrifice" -- has all the wrong connotations. The Hebrew term is korban, which comes from the root meaning "to draw near;" in antiquity these offerings were the means by which the Israelite people drew near to God. Yes, we're talking about grain, frankincense, and animal flesh, but more importantly we're talking about a mechanism for approaching the Infinite.
In my shul this week we'll be reading and discussing Leviticus 2, about the mincha or grain-offering, a cake of fine flour, oil, and spices. The cake must be unleavened, "for no leaven or honey may be turned into smoke as an offering by fire to Adonai." And each offering must be salted; "you shall not omit from your meal offering the salt of your covenant with God." Who could read those words, early in the month of Nissan, without thinking ahead to Pesach?
One of my favorite moments in our Passover seder comes early, when we take turns going around the table to read stanzas of Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb's poem "Spring Cleaning Ritual on the Eve of the Full Moon of Nisan." The poem describes the process of cleaning the hametz, the leaven, in our houses and burning it -- and, alongside, the process of cleaning out the hametz in our hearts and casting that, too, to the flames. In days of old no leavened bread could be burned as an offering to God; in modern times our leaven is precisely what we burn. What does the shift teach us?
The locus of the korban, the act by which we manifest our nearness to God, has changed. Once we offered cakes of fine flour to God as a way of effecting closeness; today we make of our homes a mikdash me'at, a small sanctuary, and draw near to God at our own tables. Unleavened bread is still a means by which we approach the Holy Blessed One, and in many homes it's customary to salt our matzot during the seder not just because they taste better that way but because of the reminder in parashat Vayikra.
In this season, in our days, we draw near to God at the seder, and at every meal when we sanctify what we consume with blessings. The process of bedikat hametz, of gathering up the leaven and burning it, isn't an offering to God in that way -- despite the involvement of fire, once such a critical component of the korban experience. What we do these days before Pesach is a housecleaning both physical and spiritual. We rid ourselves of ego and puffery, of anything fermented in ourselves which might have soured. Today what we burn is precisely what we don't want to bring to our encounters with God, and with the holiness manifest in everyone we meet.
The last section of Leviticus 2 instructs us on how to bring a mincha offering of first fruits: "new ears parched with fire, grits of the fresh grain." At this season where I live, the very first crocuses are beginning to push their cautious leaf-tips up through the snow-soaked soil; we are months away from first fruits. But every season, and every day, can yield the fruits of our labors and our imaginations. First fruits, the text tells us, are to be passed through fire before they are brought to Adonai. We must resist the temptation to bring words which are only "half-baked;" instead we should bring ideas, prayers, and longings transformed by the fire of passion and intellect into something palatable and pleasing to the Source of All.
This gives the annual process of bedikat hametz new meaning. Just as dough puffed-up with yeast rises in the oven, a heart puffed-up with ego will inflate further in the fires of our passions. But if we take the time once a year to rid ourselves of our internal hametz, then passing our presence and our prayers through the fire of passionate engagement will not cause harm -- instead our internal fire will make the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts more fitting offerings to God.