We start reading the book of Leviticus, VaYikra, this week. It is sometimes a struggle to find meaning in this book which is, as the name Leviticus implies, all about the sacrificial rituals which the Levites performed in the ancient Jerusalem Temple. These rituals haven't been performed for almost 2000 years and most Jews that I know don't really yearn to see them restored.
On the surface, then, the concerns of this week’s Parasha seem very far removed from ours. But even in the context of the details of the sacrifices we can find meaning.
In Lev. 2:11 we read: "No meal offering, which you shall bring to the Lord, shall be made with leaven; for you shall burn no leaven, nor any honey, in any offering of the Lord made by fire."
Contrary to popular belief, the majority of offerings made in the ancient Temple were grain and meal offerings, not animal sacrifices. Among them was the daily meal offering which was similar to a "laffa," a large pocket-less pita which is quite popular in Israel these days and is also sometimes known as an Iraqi pita. The original matzah was also similar to laffa and some Sephardic communities still eat this soft matzah. The Torah here is specifying that such an offering cannot be combined either with yeast or with honey.
Rabbi Mordechai Ha-Kohen in his commentary Al Ha-Torah writes "Yeast and honey are symbolic of extremes. Yeast is the epitome of sourness and honey is the epitome of sweetness. This teaches us that we should always go on the “golden path”, rather than tending to extremes." Even in seemingly irrelevant details of ancient rituals, we can still find ethical meaning. Our service of God should be balanced, avoiding fanaticism in any direction.
In a world which loves to see things as either/or, Judaism generally encourages us to opt for both/and. Universalism or particularism? Both. Justice or mercy? Both. Ritual or social action? Both. Such an important lesson to be learned from a seemingly insignificant matter of ritual detail.