Some rabbis have found a deep symbolism in the priests’ use of unleavened rather than leavened bread on God’s altar.
We have only one week before Pesach, and for many of us, preparations are well underway. We are cleaning our houses, donating pasta and other non-Passover foods to those in need, and preparing for our seder meals. So when we read this week’s Torah portion, the words “unleavened bread” are sure to jump out at us. This week’s reading is not about Pesach, so why the unleavened bread?
Parashat Tzav is principally concerned with sacrifice, and the references to unleavened bread have to do with what could be offered on the altar in the ancient Mishkan (Tabernacle) in the wilderness. No yeasted bread could be part of the sacrificial ritual. Only matzot (unleavened bread) could be used as an offering to God.
The Torah offers no explanation for this practice, but many commentators have stepped into the breach. Some see using unleavened bread as a practical matter. Unleavened bread can be produced quickly, while yeasted bread — or, as was more usual in ancient times, sourdough bread — can take days to sour and rise. Leavened bread also spoils quickly, as opposed to unleavened bread, which can last a very, very long time (maybe you still have some matzah in your cupboard from last year).
Others see deep symbolism in the priests’ use of unleavened rather than leavened bread on God’s altar. When we are like leavened bread, puffed up with our own importance, it is difficult for us to be of service to anyone, human or divine. Only when we become like matzah — when we quiet the demands of the self, step out from behind our inflated egos, and realize our humble place in the universe — can we hope to serve God and our fellow human beings. When we are consumed with ourselves, we are bound fast. When we dedicate ourselves to serving others, we become free.
But unlike so many practices of the sacrificial cult — from the special mix of incense that can only be used in worship to the distinctive clothes of the priests than no one else can wear — the practice of using unleavened bread does not apply only to the designated priests in the sacred enclosure of the Mishkan. Once a year, on Pesach, this practice of eschewing what is leavened spreads to the whole people of Israel.
For one week a year, the whole camp, the entire abode of the Jewish people, becomes the sacred space in which leavening cannot be used. For one week, the whole Jewish people and those who dwell with them become the priests tending the altar of God.
On seder night, our table becomes our altar, and we place only matzah upon it. We chant ancient words and tell the story of our origins as slaves and our emergence as free people, a story that begins thousands of years ago but is repeated in every age and in every life.
We ask what it means for us to be free. Does freedom mean that we can focus our attention on ourselves? Or do we only find true freedom when we dedicate ourselves to others, when we clothe ourselves in righteousness, when we serve a cause greater than the self?
Each year, at Pesach, we have the opportunity to truly become a “kingdom of priests and a holy people” (Exodus 19:6). As we choose what is unleavened over what is leavened, may we all taste the blessing of freedom this year.
Rabbi Adam Zeff is the rabbi of Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia. He is currently on sabbatical in Israel. Email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.