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Radiant is the world soul,
Full of splendor and beauty,
Full of life,
Of souls hidden,
Of treasures of the holy spirit,
Of fountains of strength,
Of greatness and beauty.
Proudly I ascend
Toward the heights of the world soul
That gives life to the universe.
How majestic the vision –
Come, find peace,
Taste and see that God is good.
Why spend your substance on what does not nourish
And your labor on what cannot satisfy?
Listen to me, and you will enjoy what is good,
And find delight in what is truly precious.
These poetic words are from the notebook of Rav Kook.1
In these last parshiot (prior to Pesach), we continue discussing the intricacies of the Temple sacrifices and touches on chametz (leavened bread). Learning the parashiot, we can draw connections between the weekly portion from Leviticus and the larger Jewish story of moving from spiritual constriction into spiritual freedom. From safek (doubt) into salvation, the mindset of Redemption. As Rav Kook so eloquently asks of us all, “find delight in what is truly precious.”
My dad was a Rabbi and Chaplain in the Navy, so we celebrated Pesach all over the world, including Japan and Italy. Whenever possible, he would invite military personnel to the Seder, as well as friends and family. My dad grew up in a kosher home and attended services, but was not fully observant until he started studying in yeshiva during his second year in Jerusalem. He also met my mom a”h and her Yemenite family at that time and took on some of their customs– not the thick, soft Yemenite matzah that looks like a pita or the kitniyot (Hebrew for legumes), but he would allow kitniyot at the table to show that it is kosher and part of the tradition to some, even though he personally didn’t eat it.
In college, and later when I moved to Crown Heights with my ex, I was exposed to Chabad’s Pesach customs through her family. To them, it’s important not to eat any gebrokts (Yiddish for matzah that has come in contact with water) during the seven days of Pesach. So I would have to sneakily dip my matzah into the chicken soup bowl, because that was always one of my favorite things to do. Incidentally, my mom’s Yemenite tradition is to wrap the matzah in a wet cloth and always eat it wet and soft.
It’s only recently that I really began to delve into the meaning of Pesach. I’ve realized that the Seder is not just a historical retelling of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt, but an actual manifestation, an opportunity for each of us to leave our own Egypts. Through this ritual, we’re meant to free ourselves, to ‘burn’ the chametz that holds us back from seeing and living in full truth (emet), from being fully connected to the Infinite Light (ohr ha-kodesh). As it’s written in the Zohar, “G-d does not dwell in… a fragmented place.”2
In his notebook, Rav Kook also writes:
The reality of Hashem’s providence is discernible when the world is seen in its totality. The Divine presence is not manifest in anything defective. Since HaShem does not abide where there is deficiency, how can HaShem abide where everything is lacking, where all we have is the weak and puny entity, only the particularity of the ego?
This call to be committed always to the principle of universality to the divine ensemble, where all things have their being, is the essence of the soul of the righteous who walk before Hashem and whose delight is in the Divine.3
We must remember through the story of our enslavement that we, too, were once slaves and that, as Dr. King reminds us, no one is free until we are all free. Redemption is when the light of universality shines. It’s our task to usher in that revelation. This starts within our own sanctuaries and shines out from there. Nullifying the ego so the screens of separation between us all begin to fall. Indeed, the Alter Rebbe teaches in the Tanya that the basis and root purpose of the entire Torah is to elevate and exalt the soul high above the body to [G-d], the source and root of all worlds, and to draw down the Ein Sof (Infinite Light). And only when we place primary importance of our soul over our bodies can the walls that separate us come down and be replaced with love and unification. Since it’s our bodies that separate us from each other, while the soul binds us. When one focuses on the body, the separation between us becomes apparent, and only the love we create can bind us, but a created love can never equal a natural and innate love. So, love between people whose primary importance is focused on the physical, on the body over the soul, is based on external factors and endures only as long as those factors remain in play. Only when we shift our focus towards the soul over the body, of oneness over self, of the unifying and Infinite Light of the Creator of all creation, over the differences of the elements of creation, can Infinite Love exist in its purest state.4
The Biyur of Haughtiness
In Parashah Tzav, we read how Hashem provides the instructions for the priestly meal offerings, sacrifices that did not involve animals. Moses is told that “[the meal offering] shall not be baked leavened (lo teahfeh chametz). I have presented it as their share from My fire-offerings.”5 In Exodus, when Hashem gives the commandments of Pesach, it’s written, “No leaven (chametz) shall be found in your houses for seven days. For whoever eats what is chametz, that person shall be cut off from the community of Israel, whether he is a stranger or a citizen of the country.”6
Chametz literally means leavening: that which causes bread to rise. Chazal (our Sages of blessed memory) teach us that this chametz represents arrogance and the evil inclination, the yetzer hara. In Talmud Berachot, the yetzer hara is depicted as the “yeast in the dough”, 7 puffing up a person’s pride. The Talmud explains that the portion of the meal-offering eaten by the priest (kohen) is not allowed to be offered on the altar (mizbeach). A priest is dependent on Divine Gifts for their bread, so they cannot succumb to haughtiness or arrogance. But lay people have to work for their bread (with “sweat of their brow” after Adam’s sin). The more wealth they accumulate, the more the evil inclination manifests in the form of ego, haughtiness, and arrogance. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov talks about taavat mammon (the lust for money), explaining that it is most apparent in a person who makes it his life’s mission to amass great wealth.8 Lacking emunah, faith in Hashem, he instead puts his trust (bitachon) in money, mistakenly believing that the more he has, the more secure and fulfilling his life will be, and that he is in complete control of his destiny.
As you know, Jews are prohibited from consuming chametz on the seven days of Pesach. But we are also obligated to search our homes in preparation for the holiday, collecting any leftover scraps and crumbs of chametz that might be hidden, and then to ritually burn them before Pesach begins. This process is called biyur.
This ritual primes us to spend Pesach ridding ourselves of our spiritual chametz— our arrogance and pride. It’s important to face ourselves honestly as we do this, and, like the practice of biyur, there comes a time to let our egos “burn”, to not let them hold us back any longer, so that we can strengthen our emunah (faith) and connect to something higher than ourselves.
The Yehi Ratzon that we recite after the burning of chametz reads:
Just as I have eliminated the chametz from my house and from all I possess, may it be desirable before You, the One Who Brings Being into Being, God to me and God to my fathers, to rid me of the Evil Inclination. May I be privileged enough to have that urge burnt from the depths of my heart until it is no more than smoke. And so, too, may You, like the very wind of destruction, rid by fire all wickedness from the land.
Incidentally, the search (bedikat) for the chametz may not be done by sunlight or moonlight, and is only valid by the light of a candle. It is the same with the search within our own yetzer hara— it can only be done with the light of the neshamah (soul) which is called ner (candle). As it says in Proverbs, “the candle of Hashem is the soul of man, which searches the chambers of one’s inner being.”9
Matzah– the central symbol of Pesach– is the antithesis of chametz. It is known as lechem oni, the bread of poverty and affliction10 Matzah signifies the humility that comes with poverty, and so the mitzvah (obligation) to eat matzah can only truly be fulfilled if it is eaten with humility. The matzah that the Israelites ate in Egypt was lechem oni, and so, too, the matzah that we eat over Pesach reminds us to be humble– to bitul hayesh, to negate and nullify all traces of ego and self-centeredness, to transcend the illusion of self.
It’s no coincidence that matzah (מַצָּה) and chametz (חָמֵץ) are both composed of the same letters. The only difference is that matzah is spelled with a hey (ה) and chametz with a chet (ח). We see that the letter chet (ח) is completely closed from three sides, symbolizing that “sin crouches at the entrance,”11 while the hey (ה) has an opening on top, which means there is always an opening above, indicating the possibility to return to the Light. As our Sages say, “‘Open for Me as little as the eye of the needle, and I will open for you like the entrance to a hall.’ Rebbe Nachman teaches that each and every person, even the most wicked, must find the one good point in themselves, and that one point, however small, can bring them to merit in Goodness itself. As we see in Talmud Kiddushin, just one single thought of self-improvement can change someone from a wicked person into a righteous person.”12
In the famous Four Questions that we recite as part of the Pesach Haggadah, we ask, if on all other nights we are allowed to eat chametz and matzah, why during this time do we only eat matzah? Later in the Haggadah we’re given the answer, “Because the dough of our fathers did not have time to become leavened before the King of the king of kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He, revealed Himself to them and redeemed them.” Here we see that Matzah is a form of heavenly bread and that, at this time, we partake from His bread at His table, as we relive the story of Exodus, of our redemption from restriction and concealment in Egypt, to revelation and freedom through Hashem’s light.
The Forces of Fate
We all know the story of Adam eating from the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge (Etz HaDa’at). The gematria (the sum of the numerical value of the letters) of chametz and se’or (leavening) is 639, the same gematria of “Etz HaDa’at”. So, on a mystical level, the “fruit” that Adam was restricted from eating was “leavened bread”. This was humanity’s first taste of godlessness, and the birth of our impaired awareness and evil inclination. Matzah, in contrast, is the unleavened bread that symbolizes the perfection and redemption of Da’at, using our knowledge and awareness to remember and honor that Hashem is all. As it is written in Likutei Moharan, we reach Hashem only with Intimate Knowledge, with Experience, with Heart and with Emotion.13
During Pesach, we retell the story of Egypt to relive it as if we too are being freed and to remember that we too were once “strangers in a strange land”. And though we tell the story of our enslavement, we also remember the importance of not enslaving the stranger, the other, and perhaps most importantly, not becoming enslaved to ourselves, to our illusory identities. As it is written, “Do not hate an Edomite, because he is your brother. Do not hate an Egyptian, because you were a stranger in his land.”14 This verse emphasizes that we should not even hate our enemy, even those that enslaved us, because the only way to be truly free is to be free from hate. As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks says, “If they continued to hate their erstwhile enemies, Moses would have taken the Israelites out of Egypt, but he would not have taken Egypt out of the Israelites. Mentally, they would still be there, slaves to the past. They would still be in chains, not of metal but of the mind— and chains of the mind are the most constricting of all.”
The French dramatist Jean Anouilh wrote, “Tragedy is clean, it is restful, it is flawless . . . In a tragedy, nothing is in doubt and everyone’s destiny is known. That makes for tranquility . . . Tragedy is restful; and the reason is that hope, that foul, deceitful thing, has no part in it. There isn’t any hope.” Pesach celebrates the Jews leaving their tragic circumstance in Egypt and the hope that redemption and salvation brought into the Promised Land. We end the Haggadah in hope, in prayer, in unison, with the words, “Next Year in Jerusalem”. As Ishay Ribo in his song Leshuv Habaita sings, “The time has come to wake up, to leave everything, to overcome, and to return home.”15
The Prayers of Gratitude
In these parashiot, we read about the thanksgiving-offering.16 Thanksgiving signifies awareness, gratitude, action and appreciation, a potent mixture that creates love and redemption. We read that, in the future, all of the sacrifices will be suspended except the thanksgiving-offering.17 This is in the time of redemption, when there will be no sin, only thanks to Hashem (as all will be forgiven).1819 Rebbe Nachman speaks of that time, teaching that we will draw ever closer to Hashem, and, as we do, our understanding of Hashem will increase, increasing our desire for thanksgiving. The opposite is true in this time, when we can give thanks to Hashem before the redemption, thereby drawing ourselves closer to Him. As it’s written, “all sacrifices will be annulled – but the sacrifice of thanksgiving will not be annulled. All prayers will be annulled, but the prayer of gratitude will not be annulled.” As King David sings, “I owe You vows and will offer you thanksgivings.”20 Notice that it’s written “thanksgivings” and not “thanksgiving,” indicating both the thanksgiving prayer and the prayer of gratitude.
Reb Natan of Breslov teaches that the thanksgiving-offering symbolizes the union of opposites, as it was brought with both matzah and chametz, showing us that we, too, should try and join these opposites together to create true thanksgiving. As we know, on Pesach we eat only matzah, and on Shavuot we bring the thanksgiving loaves (two loaves of bread) as an offering to the Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple). These “opposite” holidays are linked through this parashah, which details the thanksgiving-offering and is read before Pesach to remind us that the goal of the Exodus on Pesach was to receive the Torah on Shavuot.21
It is Shavuot, which is the 50th day of the count (Omer) from Pesach, that correlates to the 50th Gate of Wisdom. Kabbalistically, the 50th Gate of Wisdom is connected to Malkhut (Kingship), which, in the Ten Sefirot (Emanations), is the vessel that manifests the Light of Keter (Crown). God’s Infinite Light originates at a level that is beyond this world, physically inaccessible to us, but it is filtered down through the Sefirot until it reaches the Malchut, out of which it shines onto us in our finite world.
The counting of the Omer is a seven week period– seven weeks of seven days. It is written, “You shall count for yourselves, from the day after the [festival] rest, from the day you bring [before Me] the Omer sacrifice– seven full weeks shall they be. Until the day after these seven full weeks, [Shavuot], shall you count fifty days, and then shall you bring a new offering to Me.”22 Here we see another odd jump in numbers: the Torah commands us to count for 50 days, but it also commands us to count seven weeks, which only adds up to 49 days. But much like “the eighth day” brought on by our seven days of spiritual work in consecrating the Mishkan, the fiftieth day of the Omer is that taste of the Infinite that we get on Shavuot, the holiday that commemorates and recreates our receiving the Torah directly from Hashem at Mount Sinai. That 50th day of high holiness is only made possible by the 49 days of spiritual work that we do in counting the Omer.
To understand the significance and the process of these 50 days from Pesach to Shavuot, we need to understand that there are 49 “Gates of Impurity,” descending levels of sin, in direct opposition to the 50 Gates of Wisdom. The Kabbalah teaches that, while in Egypt, the Jews descended to the 49th Gate of Impurity. And it took 49 days for our ancestors to travel from Egypt to Mount Sinai, to be prepared to receive God’s Divine revelation. Through the counting of the Omer, we have the opportunity to move through our own 49 “Gates of Understanding & Holiness,” step by step, day by day.
Rebbe Nachman teaches that the 49 Gates leading up to the 50th gate correspond to the 49 letters that make up the names of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Each tribe, therefore, has individual gates for its members, so everyone can return to Hashem through their own personalized pathway. Shavuot, receiving the Torah, is the 50th and highest Gate, the full teshuva, the complete return to Hashem. Rebbe Nachman always stressed the power of saying Tehillim (Psalms) in order to perform teshuva. And these 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot are the most powerful time to recite Tehillim and return to Hashem. These days leading up to Pesach are a chance for us to get into the mindset of bitul (self-nullification), perspective shifting to thanks and gratitude and to a space of teshuva.
This lesson is reinforced when we learn from the following pasuk (verse) related to the Jewish people’s exile in Egypt:
וְאֵ֗לֶּה שְׁמוֹת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל הַבָּאִ֖ים מִצְרָ֑יְמָה אֵ֣ת יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב אִ֥ישׁ וּבֵית֖וֹ בָּֽאו
These are the names of the Children of Israel who went down to Egypt; each man and his wife, they came.23
In Hebrew, the last letters of these lines make up the words ‘Tehillim’ and ‘Teshuvah’. The verses that follow this one list the names of the Tribes (their 49 letters) which correspond to the 49 days of Sefirah which correspond to the 49 Gates of Teshuvah.24 Reb Natan of Breslov teaches that the daily obstacles we encounter are in direct proportion to the spiritual levels of wisdom we seek to achieve. The fiftieth gate of understanding is beyond us– it’s not something we can achieve ourselves– but, much like “the eight day” and Shabbat, it will come to us as a gift from Hashem by the work that we do within the seven dimensions of space and time in the natural world.
The root of each person’s soul has a path. The power of Tehillim for the soul is that when one doesn’t know how to reach the specific gate of repentance/return, reciting Tehillim brings that person’s soul to the specific gate of repentance they need to enter.25 As we learn from Talmud Sotah, “[Man in this world] is like a person traveling in the pitch-dark night… who does not know which path to take”26 Rabbeinu reminds us, that if you think you are far, remember the words from Devarim, “It is something that is very close to you–- in your mouth and your heart, so that you can do it.”27 On the 50th day of the Exodus “God descended on Mount Sinai.”28 This involved the concept regarding which Hashem said through the last prophet Malachi, “Return to me, and I will return to you.”29 This is the return of Hashem Himself, the 50th gate of return.
The counting of Sefirat HaOmer is meant to prepare us to receive the living Torah anew every Shavuot, and it is our preparation for the 50th Gate, the gate of Wisdom. All of this begins with Pesach, which in Likutei Halachot is explained as ‘Peh Sach’, which means “a talking mouth”. This means that the only path to the upper levels of holiness is through speech, through Tefillah (prayer), the true speech of calling out to God. We do this by reading Tehillim and using speech to speak out and count each day. It’s a time when we count and realize that each day is a new beginning, a new opportunity for change, for return, for Oneness, and that each day does indeed count. The blessings you receive correlate to the words that you speak– this is the power of the Omer, of counting out loud with the blessings of Sefirat HaOmer.
We cannot reach our ultimate destination in just one holiday. Indeed, Pesach and our Exodus was just the beginning. During the Omer we continue our spiritual ascendance, working to bring ourselves closer to purity, intending to return to Hashem. And it is not until the 50th day– the day beyond the natural– that God returns to us, and we receive the Torah, the ultimate revelation.
In the absence of the Beit HaMikdash
In the days leading up to Pesach, followed by the days leading up to Shavuot, we read the parshiot that detail the korbanot (sacrifices), the ways in which we purify ourselves towards transcendence.
With the absence of a Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple) and altar today, it is forbidden to offer sacrifices. However, Chazal (our sages) tell us that our prayers today are in place of the korbanot.30 In addition to asking Hashem for our needs, prayer is a time to focus on self-improvement. It is a time when we “offer” our animal soul to Hashem, refining our animalistic tendencies and submitting them to Hashem’s will.31 Our most profound sacrifice is when we subdue and harness the overwhelming power of the evil inclination and manage to use that energy for good, for Hashem.
As it’s written in this parashah – וְהִתְקַדִּשְׁתֶּם֙ וִהְיִיתֶ֣ם קְדֹשִׁ֔ים – “You are to sanctify yourselves, and you shall become holy.”32 The Chatam Sofer teaches that by using the term וְהִתְקַדִּשְׁתֶּם, the reflexive form of קדש, it’s implied that even if one feels they haven’t attained any degree of sanctity, they should act as though they are already קדוש (holy), and to perform the mitzvot that may not even feel aligned in your current spiritual state. By making this initial effort, even though a person may not yet be קדוש (holy), (וְהִתְקַדִּשְׁתֶּם), Hashem is assuring us even in this case, that we will ultimately achieve true sanctity (וִהְיִיתֶ֣ם קְדֹשִׁ֔ים).
As we learn in Talmud Yoma, if one tries to sanctify oneself below, even if just a little bit, the person is helped to be sanctified much more from Above (both in this world and the world to come).33 “Sanctify a little from below” refers to our mitzvot in physicality, while “sanctify much more” from Above refers to the next world tied to the soul. So taking the initial step of וְהִתְקַדִּשְׁתֶּם, acting as קדוש, is the stepping stone to attain true קְדֻשָּׁה for holiness’s sake or any other sake, which will ultimately lead one to perform the mitzvot for their own sake, leading to sincere קְדֻשָּׁה.
This is a great example of the lesson we learn in Talmud Pesachim, “Mitoch shelo lishma, bah lishmah,” which means “even a mitzvah performed with ulterior motives garners reward,” as Rav Yehuda said that Rav said, “A person should always engage in Torah study and performance of mitzvot, even if he does so not for their own sake, as through the performance of mitzvot not for their own sake, one gains understanding and comes to perform them for their own sake.” The act of giving itself will eventually change the way one feels about giving.34 As stated before, if our heart compels us to want to hold on and not let go, it is the act of giving and letting go that we must master. And by way of this, we sanctify ourselves and each other.35 This is when we shift the focus from physicality to spirituality, when our alignment isn’t lead by the mind, but by the soul.
The biggest takeaway from these parashiot surrounding Pesach for me is that when we elevate our soul above our body, aligning our physical selves to our spiritual selves we can transform our natural space into a supernatural setting.
As physical creatures, we can’t fully defeat the forces of fate, but our souls, the parts of us that are infinite, can connect beyond the finite world. When we choose to burn our chametz— the false sustenance of pride and devotion to material gain– and give thanks, we can surpass our limitations and connect to the true and everlasting freedom that can only be found in the Light of the Infinite.
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Notes & Sources
- Rav Kook Notebook 3:329
- Zohar I, p. 216b
- Rav Kook Notebook 6:214
- Tanya, Likkutei Amarim, The Alter Rebbe, lesson 32
- Leviticus 6:10
- Ibid 12:15
- Talmud Berachot, 17a
- Likutei Moharan I, 23:1
- Proverbs 20:27
- Deuteronomy, Rashi 16:3
- Genesis 4:7
- Talmud Kiddushin 49b
- Likutei Moharan I, 33:4
- Deuteronomy 23:8
- “Leshuv Habaita,” a song by Ishay Ribo
- Vayikra 7:12
- Vayikra Rabbah 9:7
- Likutey Moharan II, 2:1
- Likutey Halachot II, p. 288
- Psalms 56:13
- Likutei Halachot I. 238-120a
- Leviticus 23:10–16
- Likutei Moharan II, 73
- Likutey Etzot, by Rebbe Nachman, Teshuvah # 31
- Talmud Sotah 21a and Likutey Moharan 4:8
- Deuteronomy 30:14
- Exodus 19:20
- Malachi 3:7
- Talmud, Berachot 26b. Zohar III, 28b
- Torah Ohr 62b. Kuntres Ha’Avodah,p. 10
- Leviticus 11:44
- Yoma 39a
- Pesachim 50b
- Chatam Sofer 24, ד״ה והתקדשתם