Transforming the stubbornly material into the stuff of the spiritual
There’s a wondrous journey that takes place between Pesach and Shavuos. Defined by its endpoints, it is the journey that takes us from matzah to chometz.
We embark on this trip on Pesach, a time when even a morsel of leaven cannot be found in our possession, let alone eaten, and somehow, seven weeks later, we find ourselves embracing chometz so completely that it gains entrée into our most sacred precincts. We bring two loaves of bread, the Shtei Halechem, as a Minchah offering in the Beis Hamikdash. It is an odyssey beginning with zero tolerance and ending in full acceptance.
Spanning this Pesach-to-Shavuos period are the days of the counting of Sefirah, and it’s only logical to assume there must be something about those seven weeks that abets the transformation from adamantly eschewing chometz to heartily chewing it. What might that something be?
The Ramban famously writes that the entire period from Pesach until and including Shavuos constitutes one long meta-Yom Tov. It tracks the structure of Pesach and Succos, each of which feature a first day of Yom Tov, followed by several days of Chol Hamoed, and conclude with a final day of Yom Tov.
So too are Pesach’s seven days the initial Yom Tov period of this 50-day holiday, and Shavuos its concluding Yom Tov day. That dovetails well with Chazal’s conferral of the name Atzeres on Shavuos, since that’s also how the Torah describes the last days of both Pesach and Succos, too (although, of course, Shemini Atzeres is in some respects its own holiday).
This means, too, that the six weeks of Sefirah post-Pesach and pre-Shavuos correspond to Chol Hamoed. That is instructive, conveying that what happens on Chol Hamoed — the intermingling of kodesh and chol, of melachah and shevisah — is reflective of what is intended to be taking place during the weeks of Sefirah as well.
Moving from matzah, whose messages of faith, humility and physical simplicity make it the symbol of the spiritual, to its grossly material opposite, chometz, does not represent, chalilah, an abandonment of the spiritual for the material. Rather, it signals a taming of the material, a channeling of it, leading eventually to its incorporation within a larger spiritual framework. It is, in a word, what our work on this world is all about.
Transforming the stubbornly material into the stuff of the spiritual cannot be accomplished with alchemy, nor will it happen overnight. It is a lengthy, intensive process requiring the sustained hard work of climbing the rungs of the ladder leading from Earth to Heaven. That is what Sefirah and Chol Hamoed are for, a time of encounter between the spiritual and the material, the former affecting and ultimately sublimating the latter.
And ultimately, through this transformative process, so fully is the material integrated and brought under the overall umbrella of the spiritual that it can make its debut alone in the most intensely spiritual place on earth, unaccompanied by matzah at all. The Shtei Halechem, so spiritually suspect just seven weeks earlier, is now trustworthy, and a worthy complement to the matzah that usually comprises the Minchah offerings.
There’s an age-old minhag to learn the six chapters of Pirkei Avos during the six weeks of this “Chol Hamoed” period (although we continue on throughout the summer), and we might ask how that could be connected to the process we’ve described.
But first, why the name Avos? The Gemara (Bava Kamma 30a) teaches that a person who wants to become a chassid should study Avos. Chassidus, the Mesillas Yesharim explains, is the spiritual level at which a person is interested not only in knowing what Hashem says, but also in what He wants. The chassid studies what Hashem has said, what He has commanded us to do, looking to discern from the details of the mitzvos what Hashem really wants of us and from us. Filled with love of the Ribbono shel Olam, he truly wants what Hashem wants, fulfilling the charge of the mishnah in Avos, “Make His Will yours.”
Conventionally, avos means “fathers,” or perhaps also in Mishnaic terminology, “primary categories.” But it can also be said to mean “desires.” Various forms of the root word avah appear in Torah, and the Malbim explains that this refers to the earliest roots of desire, the human will in its embryonic stage.
Avos, then, might be a term for the compendium of teachings about the values and traits Hashem really wants us to develop and manifest, the true goals of the system of mitzvos He has given us. Tzedakah is not just about giving money, but fostering generosity of the heart. Tefillin isn’t only about tying on straps, but about subjugating heart, mind, and brawn to our Creator. And so on. Perhaps there aren’t explicit commands in the Torah regarding many of the middos, positive and negative, featured in Avos, but the whole point of this masechta is to serve as a guidebook to what HaKadosh Baruch Hu is conveying with the explicit commands that do appear therein.
When we reach the point of not feeling merely bound to do what Hashem commands, but excited to do what He truly wants, the tug and allure of material pleasures shrivels and fades to nothingness. Chometz has been disarmed, and the Two Loaves may partake of Hashem’s service.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 912. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at email@example.com)
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