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Toward Shabbat: Behar-Behukkotai

I’ve been thinking a lot about ego recently: the role that it plays in my life; and my ongoing efforts to infuse accomplishment with humility, to temper my ego so that achievement does not become arrogance, to pull back from ambition when it is for the sake of recognition alone.

It’s a good time of year to be thinking about this. Tonight, we count the 37th day of the Omer. More than five weeks have passed since the start of Pesah, when, according to Hassidic thought, we are invited to let go of our spiritual hametz, in addition to the physical. On Pesah, we refrained from eating bread that’s puffed up in order to remind ourselves of the values of modesty and humility. For seven days, we physically eliminated bread symbolic of pride and arrogance from our diet, while also attempting to purge these qualities from our minds and hearts.

But if hametz represents ego and arrogance, how do we explain its role in our Shabbat and holiday celebrations, in the form of challah? Why do we make those traits so central to our observances, and on a weekly basis? And, as we approach the end of the Omer, its centrality in the Shavuot offering to God is even more puzzling: In contrast to Pesah, when hametz is forbidden, on Shavuot hametz is expressly required, forming the core of the bikkurim (first fruits) offering the Jewish people brought to the Temple. In describing the bikkurim, the text in Parashat Emor, which we read last week, specifically refers to two loaves of “hametz” (Leviticus 23:17) as the offering, emphasizing the use of leavened bread for this holy purpose. How might we resolve these two conflicting understandings of hametz—of both ridding ourselves of it and including it in a sacred ritual?

In its pure essence, hametz is not prideful. Ego is the element that drives our ambition; the self-confidence that leads us to action, to go out and do good and achieve and transform ourselves and our communities. Without hametz there is no motivation, no risk taking, no pursuit of a goal, and, thus, no accomplishment.

Pesah reminds us that this self-confidence can become dangerous in the extreme. When hametz becomes all there is, ambition becomes bloated, expanding into arrogance, into self-interested action, into accomplishment solely for the sake of accolades. This is the prideful aspect that we strive to eliminate in our pre-Pesah soul searching and in our distance from hametz during the holiday.

As we move through the period of the Omer and with less than two weeks until Shavuot—the holiday sanctified through hametz—we are invited to refocus our ambition, to return to the recognition of hametz as motivator, as the driver that leads us to do great things for their own sake. Ultimately, the Omer is a period for self reflection, for examining the kavanot (intentions) that underlie our desires and decisions.

This perspective may help explain why we count up in the Omer, from 1 to 49 days, as opposed to counting down, supplementing other possible explanations such as the Talmudic principle “ma’alim bakodesh ve’ain moridim” (we ascend in holiness and do not descend). After attempting to scrape ourselves clean of hametz on Pesah, we begin to bring back its positive attributes, taking care that each addition is genuinely motivated. As we count each day of the Omer, we symbolically add to our ambition and our drive, slowly reinserting hametz into our lives until the 49th day, when—hopefully—we stand with purity of intention, ready to move forward in our holy work.