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Rabbi Doniel Staum on Parshas Vayikroh - The Call of Humility
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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In his classic work "TENDING THE VINEYARD", my Rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein shlita[1], relates the following vignette:

“At the time that my wife and I made aliyah to live in Israel, the Ministry of Interior required certification through the chief rabbinate that any new immigrants were Jews in order to qualify for citizenship and immigrant benefits. After an hour-long wait at the ministry to be interviewed, my wife and I sat before a hard-faced clerk. I did not have a letter from a rabbi certifying to my Jewishness, but I felt confident that since I was on the chief rabbinate's list of approved rabbis whose letter would be accepted to verify the Jewishness of others, I would suffer no problem.

“Well, I was wrong. The clerk acknowledged that my name did appear on that august list of recognized rabbis but she sweetly said: "Simply because you are acceptable to say about others that they are Jewish does not necessarily mean that you are yourself Jewish."

“This baffling piece of legal logic astounded me. I told my wife to continue sitting at this clerk's booth and I hurried out and hailed a cab that delivered me to the house of a rabbinical friend of mine whose name was likewise on the approved list of rabbis. He wrote out a letter for me and I took the same cab back to the Interior Ministry. My poor wife was still sitting at the clerk's booth as I breathlessly charged into the office and presented the letter to the clerk.

“The clerk smiled at us and said: "Now you're Jewish!" And so we were. Never underestimate the power of a letter written by a rabbi who is on the approved list of the Israeli chief rabbinate.”

Chumash Vayikra, also known as Toras Kohanim[2], is chiefly dedicated to the unique laws pertaining to the Kohanim and their daily Service in the Mishkan. It commences with a detailed account of the many laws endemic to the various offerings brought in the Mishkan.

Aside from animal offerings, there were also Mincha/flour offerings that could be offered. Although there were different types of Mincha offerings, flour and water were universal ingredients of every mincha. Yet, the Torah warns that when the flour and water were mixed they could never be allowed to leaven or ferment. “Any meal-offering that you offer to G-d shall not be prepared leavened, for you shall not cause to go up in smoke from any leavening or any honey as a fire-offering to G-d.[3]

As we are all aware, there is another prohibition of chometz, i.e. during the days of the holiday of Pesach. Throughout the rest of the year there is absolutely no prohibition from eating chometz, in fact bread plays a central role in many food-oriented mitzvos, such as on Shabbos and holidays. But on Pesach the mere ownership of chometz becomes a serious transgression.

The austere prohibition against owning chometz on Pesach and offering chometz on the altar seems to be interconnected. What is the deeper idea behind that connection?

In order for bread to rise, leavening must take place, catalyzed by yeast or another leavening agent. As oxidation occurs, air pockets develop. Nothing is added to the dough, but it gets bigger, propelled upward by warm air. It is nothing more than the process of nature which causes dough to rise.

Our egos are compared to the yeast in dough. Our ego comprises our sense of self, which is vital to a healthy identity. It is our ego which propels us to accomplish and to grow. But at the same time our egos are always in danger of becoming inflated with ‘hot air’. This occurs when our sense of identity becomes befuddled, and we no longer appreciate our uniqueness. A false ego can persuade us that trivialities are hugely significant and we can easily be distracted from what truly matters. Just as a healthy ego helps us love, compassionate, and sensitive to others, it also can cause us to become self-absorbed, envious, and hateful.

Matzah, which consists of nothing more than flour and water which has not been allowed to leaven, symbolizes self-negation before G-d. It is flat and contains nothing other than the barest essentials, demonstrating that we are nothing without G-d.

Chametz, on the other hand, symbolizes our sense of identity and independent contribution. Ultimately G-d wanted us to exercise our free will to contribute to His world and bring His Presence into it. In that sense Chametz is not a negative force at all. In fact, it is the source of all accomplishment and positive action. However, when one becomes arrogant and forgets his place it can easily spiral out of control. He loses perspective of where his independence and achievements come from and he begins to believe too much in himself by taking himself too seriously.

Pesach is the re-experiencing of the birth and genesis of our nationhood. During the first days, weeks, and even months of a baby’s life the infant cannot eat normal foods. His system is not yet developed and he lacks the ability to chew and digest the foods we eat.

In a similar vein, at the moment of our rebirth we reduce our eating to matzah, symbolizing that we are nothing in the presence of G-d. It is only after a week of eating matzah and contemplating its vital message that we can reintroduce chometz - representing our own egos - into our diet. It is only when we have been sufficiently reminded that ultimately we are mere pawns in the hands of the Almighty that we can again focus on our pathways of life, and hopefully won’t lose sight of Who is truly in control of our destiny.

When one brought an offering to the Mishkan/Bais Hamikdash, it was not merely a physical offering of blood or flour. It was meant to be an emotional experience of reconnection and subservience to G-d.[4]

The Netziv[5] explains that leavened bread represents utilizing human intervention to add to the natural state of creation. When we stand before G-d in His Home, as it were, it is inappropriate it is for us to demonstrate our ability to alter the natural order and manipulate creation[6]. Therefore in the Bais HaMikdash, Chametz was virtually never offered on the altar[7].

One of the most well-known passages in the haggadah is the Four Sons. Much attention is given to understanding the questions, as well as the responses, given to the four diverse personalities at the Seder.

Perhaps one of the most well-known questions regarding the Four Sons involves understanding the difference between the Wise Son and the Wicked Son.

“The wise one, what does he say? “What are the testimonies, the statutes and the laws which Hashem, our G-d, has commanded you?" You, in turn, shall instruct him about the laws of Pesach, [until the final law which states that] `One may not to eat any dessert after the Passover-lamb.'

“The wicked one, what does he say? "What is this service to you?!" He says ‘to you’, but not to him! By thus excluding himself from the community he has denied that which is fundamental. You, therefore, blunt his teeth and say to him: "It is because of this that G-d did for me when I left Egypt"; ‘for me’ - but not for him! If he had been there, he would not have been redeemed!"

Our response to the Wicked Son is harsh and candid because he referred to the Seder as ‘your service’ excluding himself. But does the Wise son not speak in a similar vein when he questions the laws that ‘G-d has commanded you’?

Rabbi David Lapin[8] explains that there is a notable difference between their questions. The Wise Son asks about the complexity involved in the intellectual study of Torah. His question is not about the practices of the night, but about the different classifications and understandings behind all that is done at the Seder.

The Wicked son on the other hand, questions the actions. He exudes a dubious attitude towards the service that ‘G-d has commanded you’.

The Wise Son is correct for asking about the laws, testimonies, and statues that ‘G-d has commanded you’. He recognizes his role as the student who is seeking the knowledge of a more sagacious teacher. He is requesting that the teacher transmit the Torah that G-d taught him, through his teachers, who were taught by their teachers. The Wise Son recognizes that his connection to Torah is still tenuous, and he requires guidance. Essentially, his question stems from feelings of humility, an admission that the teacher has superior knowledge and understanding which the student desires to access.

In regards to practice on the other hand, the Wise Son understands that we are all equally obligated. He does not question the fact that we are performing the service of the night. Rather, his request is to better understand the depth of what we are doing.

The Wicked Son however, questions our actions. He does not seek a deeper understanding; he seeks to know why we are bothering with the Seder in the first place.

Rabbi Lapin continues that the contemporary Jewish world seems to have it backwards. What separates the scholar from the ignoramus is not in practice but in understanding. Yet, there are many people who maintain minimal levels of observance but love to demonstrate their acumen and familiarity in Talmud, and even kabbalah. They engage in deep complex Talmudic debates and lecture about profound scholarly topics, which they have limited knowledge of.[9]

The tragic reality is that there is a prevalent attitude that everyone feels he is worthy to be a Torah authority. Yet, when it comes to observance people are quicker to say “I’m not so religious. I don’t keep that; I’m not on that level!” In other words, we are modest with practice but arrogant in knowledge.

Therein lies the difference between the question of the Wise Son and the Wicked Son. The Wise Son is appropriately arrogant in his practice - he feels that he is just as obligated and connected to practicing the Torah as the greatest scholar. However, he is modest in his knowledge; he humbles himself before his teachers and those who possess superior wisdom.

The Wicked Son however, feels that he is worthy of debating about what is transpiring on a theological level, while at the same time excluding himself and rejecting the observance.

Rabbi Lapin concludes that as we read the haggadah each year we are wont to picture ourselves as the Wise Son. But perhaps we should stop and think if we have some of the arrogance of the Wicked son within ourselves as well.

The essence of humility is an attitude of feeling great responsibility in regards to action, but great inadequacy in regards to knowledge.

The Chofetz Chaim noted that the arrogant person is not a sinner, but rather one who lacks understanding[10]. He simply does not realize his place and his uniqueness and so his identity becomes distorted.

For one week of Pesach we rid our homes of matzah and undermine our own egos. In so doing we are reminded not to take ourselves too seriously. It is only when that week is over that we can again enjoy chometz, with an understanding that the essential difference between matzah and chometz is nothing more than hot air.

“Any meal-offering that you offer to G-d shall not be prepared leavened”

“What are the testimonies which Hashem, our G-d, has commanded you?"

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[1] Published by Shaar Press

[2] The secular name of the book ‘Leviticus’ literally means ‘book of the Levites’ as the Kohanim are from the tribe of Levi

[3] Vayikra 2:11

[4] See Ramban,Vayikra 1:9

[5] Ha’amek Davar

[6] even though ultimately that is our mission

[7] The one notable exception was the offering of the Shtei Halecehm on Shavuos. On Shavuos, the holiday which celebrates our acceptance of the Torah, we demonstrate that the Torah transcends the natural world. Thus, on that day we demonstrate our greatness, as the adherents to the Torah, even in the Bais Hamikdash.

[8]founder and author of

[9] Would anyone give a lecture about physics/law without having a thorough understanding of the subject matter?

[10] Quoted in the newly printed “Mareh Kohain Haggadah” from Rav Avrohom Pam zt’l, p. 186

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