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This week's parsha

The Price of Spiritual Growth

There’s a legend about a renowned Greek philosopher who was sighted by his disciples in a place of gross immorality. They angrily confronted him: “You -- who educates us in the philosophy of ethics and morals -- how could you?!”

 

To which he responded, “My dear students, I also teach you the foundations of trigonometry -- do I look to you like a triangle?”

 

Why is it so offensive when we find our role models, or members of the clergy, behaving in despicable immoral fashion? After all, they are just human beings, prone to making mistakes. But still, the dichotomy between their professed self-actualization and their depraved behavior just doesn’t sit well with us.

 

Spiritual development can be very gratifying and exciting; surrendering a personal vice is less glamorous, not much fun at all. It’s tempting to grow complacent in indulging habits rather than battle them into defeat. And yet spiritual progress doesn’t work when not accompanied by serious impulse control and self-discipline, the type of internal sacrifice that isn’t easy or visible to the public eye. The mind may dream of transcendence, but our legs have us stuck in the mud.

 

Chassidic teachings unveil the pathology of “spirituality without sacrifice” through a fascinating halachic analysis. It revolves around the issue of kosher grain.

 

G‑d instructs us to bring an “Omer” barley offering on the second day of Passover, the 16th of Nissan. Until the Omer offering is brought on the altar, all grain that was planted within the past year (beginning from the previous 16th of Nissan) is forbidden for consumption. “You shall not eat bread, parched grain flour or parched kernels [from the new crop] until this very day, until you bring your G‑d’s sacrifice” (Leviticus 23:14).

 

The forbidden “new” grain, planted since last Nissan and before this year’s Omer offering is brought, is called chadash (new). After the Omer offering was brought, all grain that took root before that day is now called yashan (old), and can be eaten.

 

Grain was also needed in the Holy Temple for the various meal offerings that were offered (independently, or as accompaniment for the many animal sacrifices). But there was a greater restriction on the grain used for the meal offerings than on grain used for ordinary consumption. To be used in the Temple for a meal offering, grain from the new crop had to wait until Shavuot, when a two-loaf bread offering was offered. Only after living through both the Omer offering and the bread offering was grain “mature” enough to be used on the altar.

 

Now here comes some Talmudic analysis:

 

What if a meal offering was accidentally made of new grain? Was the meal offering disqualified, and would it disqualify the sacrifices that it accompanied? What is the post facto law?

 

The Talmud answers as follows. If the grain is chadash, then the meal offering (and the sacrifices it accompanied) would be disqualified. But if the grain is yashan, and just the two-loaf offering has not been offered, then post facto the meal offering was valid; the grain is not ideal, but not totally disqualified.

 

 

Before the Omer offering was brought

After the Omer offering was brought

After the two loaf-bread offering was brought

For general consumption

Chadash
  -- not allowed

Yashan
  -- allowed

Allowed

For use in the Temple

Chadash
  -- not allowed

Ideally not used.
Post facto, the offering is valid

Allowed

 

Chassidic masters teach that all facets of the Torah work in unison and communicate the same message, albeit each in their own dialect. What is the message to be found in the grain’s unique maturation process?

 

First let’s decode the “characters” in our analysis, and unveil their mystical counterparts: a) The Omer offering. b) The two-loaf bread offering. c) The meal offering.

 

The Omer Offering was comprised of barley, a food that, in Biblical times, was considered a staple of the animal diet. It represents the work of committing our animalistic tendencies to following G‑d’s template of morality. Sacrificing barley means surrendering our natural impulses to instead follow a divine code, the code articulated in the Torah.

 

Bread, by contrast is a staple of human consumption. The Two-Loaf Bread Offering represents the committing of our human tendencies to be more G‑dlike. Human beings are creatures of sophisticated reasoning skills. Yet even intellect must be refined, taught to eschew egocentric reasoning in favor of truth-seeking reasoning. Even Torah study can have various motivations, ranging from honor-seeking to altruistic. Offering bread represents the work of refining our noble human activities until they sparkle with humility.

 

Every day, the high priest offered a Meal Offering which was consumed on the altar, symbolizing our personal quest to be “consumed on the altar” and pursue a life of spiritual development. When you’re living an inspired life, you’re fueled by the G‑dly flame that burns beneath the altar. Your fire can then warm up your sphere of influence with its glow.

 

Now we can penetrate the surface of the law of kosher grain and see its perfect reflection in Jewish mysticism.

 

The ideal grain for use in the meal offering is grain that has developed past the two-loaf bread offering. Only after one offers his or her “bread” and is conscious of maintaining a humble and altruistic approach to human development, is he or she ready to be part of the meal offering, to pursue a life of spiritual expansion and to be role model to others.

 

But if one hasn’t offered the two-loaf offering -- if one has not yet sacrificed the ego and is still motivated largely by egocentric drives -- his or her spiritual service is still valid; not ideal, but post facto it’s valid.

 

However, if one hasn’t even offered the Omer offering -- i.e., hasn’t surrendered his or her animalistic instincts to G‑d -- then that individual is not qualified to be a meal offering. The spiritual achievements and hallowed example of such a person can be deceptively detrimental to him- or herself and to others.

 

If you can’t let G‑d into your kitchen, your closets or your bedroom, then you can’t claim to be a spiritual guru. The Omer offering, the discipline of sacrificing our base desires, is the first step towards authentic piety. It’s the kind of work that no one notices much, but without giving up our barley, we remain stuck in the material world, unable to propel ourselves higher.

Here’s the personal lesson that I'm taking from this brilliant chassidic analysis: Whenever I’m feeling inert, spiritually blocked, uninspired, it may be a good opportunity to sift through my grain and see if it has properly matured. Perhaps an Omer offering would do me good.

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