Jewish Philosophy

Inflation, Deflation and the Bits in Between
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Thursday 1st May 2014

On a recent trip to the Science Museum, a man on a screen was revolving four cups, one of which had a ball hidden inside it. When he stopped, we had to accurately predict where the ball was. That turned out to be the easy part. He then asked whether those watching had observed a horse walking past in the background. Predictably, no one had. The intense concentration on the cups had shut out everything else.

I was reminded of this while writing this article. We are now in the period between Pesach and Shavuot. The two festivals are connected by the counting of the Omer. For 49 days, we concentrate intensely on the daily count but, like in the experiment, something very strange happens. I wonder if you can spot it.

What appears bizarre is that the count begins on Pesach when all chametz must be completely and utterly disposed of. One can understand the necessity to eat matzah, but why the antipathy towards chametz? One suggestion is the behaviour of dough. When forming chametz, dough rises. When forming matzah, dough cannot rise. The rising dough is analogous to arrogance and ego which 'raises' a person’s self-importance. The Exodus from Egypt led directly to Mount Sinai and to becoming a sacred, G-dly nation. A relationship with G-d can only be achieved with humility. Chametz must be eliminated.

Yet when we arrive at the end of the count, on Shavuot, the exact opposite happens. Chametz was the central component of the festive offering of the Two Loaves (Shtei Ha’lechem) in the holy Temple! What happened to all the important lessons of humility? It’s all in the count. The 49 days between Egypt and Mount Sinai were an opportunity for the Israelites to elevate and refine themselves. They were a chance to shed the ‘chametz’ in their character, and to become worthy recipients of the Torah.

The mystics identified these days with 49 steps in self-refinement, as relating to seven emotional characteristics (such as kindness and discipline). In some siddurim, following the counting of the Omer, there is a prayer in which the specific step is mentioned by name.

This self-improvement was so complete that the negative impact of chametz no longer affected them. On the contrary, they actually discovered it could be used as a stimulus! How?
This week’s sidrah, Behar (lit. ‘at the Mountain’) refers to Mount Sinai. It was chosen to be a place of great revelation as it is the lowest mountain in that region, symbolising humility. But why did G-d select a mountain? Surely humility is better defined by a valley or even flat ground, not a mountain which is lofty?

The answer is that Torah observance demands two qualities: loftiness, represented by the mountain, accompanied by humility and subordination, as represented by the flat Sinai desert plains.

As much as humility is critical, one’s Judaism should also be lived with loftiness, pride and determination, ignoring deflating comments and the ridicule of others. There really is a balance between the two, a balance reflected by chametz and matzah. 


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