Various theories are advanced in our classic literature as to why on Passover, chametz — leavened products — are so reviled: Some suggest they represent haughtiness, while the Talmud views it as symbolic of man’s “evil inclination” that draws him away from adhering to the Torah. Once a year, we are bidden to “clean house” and reassess the degree to which such forces determine the direction of our lives.
Perplexing, though, is that after the 49-day count from Passover to Shavuot, the Jewish community of the Temple period was expected to offer a korban, a sacrifice, made of fine flour — and baked into chametz loaves! If Shavuot is the culmination of a process that starts with Pesach — we were freed from bondage so we could receive the Torah — why is chametz forbidden with the exodus from Egypt, but allowed — even celebrated — a mere seven weeks later? Not only to eat — but as an offering to God?
Shavuot has another strange element: Usually, the Torah mentions what day a specific holiday is on, and then it instructs us what to do on that day. Shavuot is just the opposite: The Torah says to count — and then bring the special chametz sacrifice on Day 50. Only then does the Torah mandate that the day be a yom tov, a holiday.
In other words, we don’t offer a korban on Shavuot. Instead, we observe the festival on the day that we bring the offering!
Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Rabbi Ezra Bick offers this explanation:
When challah dough is left to sit for a while, especially in a warm place, it rises. Left in the oven without supervision or intervention, it inflates and grows. The dough’s hidden potential is expressed, it becomes manifest. Obviously, actualizing potential is positive, not a negative thing. In fact, it would be fair to say that the Torah’s whole agenda for our people is to bring out our potential as individuals and as a nation...
That said, the development of something, when left on its own, without guidance, can have disastrous results. Without structure, premature expression of potential may well lead to anarchy. In the Passover context, one who suddenly becomes free — should not allow all of his previously suppressed drives and inclinations to run wild, to express themselves. It is at this point — the moment of freedom — that a person must eat matzoh, must hold himself back, while he slowly develops a sensitivity and awareness of his potential.
Seven weeks had to pass, counting every day, while the Israelites waited for the giving of the Torah. During this time, they meditated on the infinite possibilities lying before them.
Nachmanides notes that after the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai, the Jewish people built the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. It captured the spirituality of the Sinaitic experience. In the course of time, that Mishkan arrived in the Land of Israel and ultimately transformed into the Bet Hamikdash, the Temple.
Our sages teach us that every synagogue today is a mikdash me’at — a miniature Temple.
On one level, mirroring the giving of the Torah on Har Sinai, the synagogue is an educational center. Just as at Mt. Sinai, we learned Torah. To know how to behave as a nation, we come to synagogue to learn Torah.
On another level, mirroring the function of the Mishkan, the synagogue is a house of worship. We come to spiritually connect with God.
The synagogue also serves a third function: In the Haggadah we sang, “If you had brought us to Har Sinai and not have given us the Torah — that would have been enough for us!”
But why would it have been enough for us? What good would standing at the foot of the mountain have been had it not been followed by Matan Torah?”
The answer is that at Sinai, we also coalesced into one nation — as one man with one heart. We became a people. The synagogue is a beit haknesset — a gathering place for the community.
In every congregation there are those who are drawn primarily to Torah study; others, though they value Torah study, connect more to the tefillah, the prayers, their customs, tunes and melodies. A third group is drawn by the simple feeling of kehilla, the community a synagogue provides.
Whatever one’s focus, the time between Pesach and Shavuot is a time for us to orient ourselves toward the synagogue as the center of our community, a time to slowly ponder our priorities — as each of us — with the help of the kehilla to strive to actualize his potential.