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Rabbi Francis Nataf

It’s time to talk about chametz again. I am not referring to Pesach, though it may well be connected. Rather I am speaking about Parshat HaShavua and the prohibition of chametz on the altar. Though not all commentators agree, it is likely that there is at least some connection between that prohibition of chametz and the one which is more likely on our minds as we rid our homes of this most challenging foodstuff.

Netziv is one of the commentators that posits a common explanation for the two prohibitions of chametz (on Shemot 13:3 and Vaykra 2:11). For him, 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. Two such contexts are the holiday of our liberation and the sacrificial altar.

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I would like to focus on the latter and ferret out why chametz is particularly problematic as a sacrifice. Indeed, what can man actually give to God as a sacrifice? Even if – as we read in Tehillim (115:16) – God “gave the earth to man,” does that really represent ownership? It has been said that given where we end up after we die, the earth really owns us more than we own it.

Ownership is really more of a legal fiction than anything else. The fiction is engendered and societally enforced so that we can provide for orderly interaction among people. Karl Marx famously suggested a different way to look at the connection between humans and objects. He posited that we invest value on that upon which we work – the so called labor theory of value. But this is no less artificial than the traditional concept of ownership. In what way does the fact that I spend my time and effort on something affect the object’s essence? My reaping cotton to get it to the marketplace has no impact on the product itself. And even if I make a table out of wood, all I have done is reshape that which existed without me.

So is there anything we can truly own? The only object that we can call our own on an essential level is something that we actually create. But has God not created everything already? Yes, but there are things the entire nature of which man altars, a process that – without stretching the concept too far – could be described as creation. Man forms an essential connection with a product that he reconfigures in such a way that would never occur in the natural world. And the most widespread and ancient example of this is leavened bread.

One of the things that has always bothered man is that he can only give to God from what is already His (see Avot 3:7). This conundrum reflects an ambition to do better, by somehow giving something that we can really call our own. That being the case, we should think that leavened bread should be the perfect sacrifice. And yet it is singled out as the most problematic thing to put on the altar (even more than natural sweetener, devash, which is prohibited in the same verse).

All other things being equal, it would be a good thing to give something of our own to God. But all other things are not equal. It is specifically when we can call something our own that our humility is most threatened. When we come to the altar in this way, it is hard to subdue the pride that comes with ownership of an object by way of its creation. With bread in our hands, we can come to God too much like an equal.

Instead, We must come to Him with the awareness of the other side of what we read in Tehillim (24:1), “To God is the earth and everything in it.” Everything includes us as well. And it is only with this awareness of the human condition that we can stand in front of God’s altar.

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