Coming to the end of our frantic efforts to get rid of the chametz in our homes, this week’s parsha reminds us that this would be nearly non-existent in the Temple. For, as we read once again, the standard mincha (meal) offerings were to be matza year-round. And even on the special occasions when chametz was called for, it was never incinerated on the altars (hence eliminating the most difficult part of getting ready for Pesach – cleaning ovens!)
On the face of it, this fits in with our general understanding of the Temple as a place in which we are bound to a higher standard. The various discussions about chametz make us aware that there is something spiritually problematic about this food. While the Torah does not want to push us to the point of eliminating it all the time everywhere, it is willing to do so in this realm of higher sanctity. The notion of a higher standard in the Temple would perhaps also explain why the lulav was waved in the Temple for the entire festival of Sukkot, whereas it was only waved one day outside of it. (The practice we follow today of waving it the whole week was a rabbinic enactment to remember the Temple practice.)
While I believe the above is true, the theory requires us to explain why it sometimes seems like the opposite. For example, shatnez is famously found in the clothes of the Kohen Gadol (and possibly the other priests as well). Moreover, while building the Temple famously ground to a halt on Shabbat, this was not true of the actual Temple service. On Shabbat, the priests would slaughter the sacrificial animals just like they would on any other day (and there were even more communal sacrifices on Shabbat than during the week).
Perhaps the reason for our confusion is our automatic assumption that more is always better. Rather – based on our earlier observations – while that seems to be the case regarding the prohibition of chametz and the commandment to wave the lulav, it is apparently not the case when it comes to shatnez or prohibited work on Shabbat.
In that case, one of the things that seems to come out from the Temple service is that more is not always better. In place of this simplistic formula, the Torah calls us to examine every issue in context. One way to understand this is to compare it to the quantities of ingredients used in different recipes. It is obvious that even the tastiest ingredients can spoil something if they are used beyond their proper measure. And – more importantly for our purposes – that measure will differ greatly from one recipe to another. What that means is the value of something is always relative to its context. Accordingly, the Torah wants us to understand that, just like recipes, our actions are also (and likely much more) complex. That being the case, there can truly be too much of a good thing even when it comes to mitzvot.
However the Torah is hardly trying to let us off the hook by encouraging us to conclude that “everything is relative.” Rather, the Torah’s recognition of complexity calls us to study it in greater depth so as to understand the nature of its values and how they interact with one another. Perhaps this is one of the reasons the Talmud concludes that the strength of the rabbi that permits something is greater than the one that prohibits it. The reason may not be intrinsic to the value of permissibility. Instead, it is because such a rabbi is more likely to have understood the concept in question on its own merits and in its particular context.
This brings us back to the coming holiday. Although there is a strong basis for our propensity to be more stringent on Pesach than we are during the rest of the year, we should not turn that into a blanket attitude in which stringency is always followed, regardless of the other values at stake. Of course, neither should this be read as a blanket call for leniency. It is simply an appeal for greater sophistication in how we apply the appropriate stringency for this special holiday.
And don’t forget to listen to the related podcast episode, Is Machmir Always Better?