OLD v NEW
Rabbi David Walk
One of the greatest ironies of the Cold War between the US and the former USSR, was the huge grain deal in the summer of 1972. The United States had decided to dispense with the huge storage of grain surpluses which had been building up around the country for many years. Because America was producing so much grain annually the need for these emergency supplies was deemed unnecessary. The Nixon administration was willing to subsidize the export of these wheat resources because it was seen as a long term savings for the American people, and so in one year grain stocks went down by almost half. However, it didn't work out as planned. The Soviet Union, our fierce global nemesis, was in the midst of a drought and major grain shortage. They stepped in and bought 10 million tons of wheat (believe me, that's a lot) at great prices because of our government's subsidy. The result was a grain shortage throughout the free world which raised prices to levels not seen in a century. Our canny capitalist country was outsmarted in the international market economy by that great communist state. This deal has come to be known by historians as 'The Great Grain Robbery'. It wasn't robbery, just business savvy.
Two results of that debacle are interesting. One was that the US invested in satellite tracking of farm resources throughout the globe, so, that, we wouldn't be caught uninformed about grain stocks again. The second was that the US was no longer using old grain for bakery goods anymore. This influenced many Orthodox Jews to start producing their own baked products, labeled yoshon, grain which had been harvested before the previous sefirat ha'omer. This mitzvah of not using grains until we have brought the omer offering in the Temple (or just waiting for that date to pass, when there is no Holy Temple) contains a controversy. Most of us assume that this mitzvah only pertains in Israel. So, most of us didn't change our practices. But many authorities rule that even in the Diaspora we must be concerned for this issue. But what does all of this have to do with this week's Torah reading? Read on, dear reader.
At the beginning of this week's parsha we have the beautiful blessings which accrue to those who follow God's Torah. Among these boons is the following statement: You will have such a surplus of crops that you won't know what to do with them when the new harvest is ready! (Leviticus 26:10). Even I like that translation, because it conveys the visceral sense of the verse that God will make your land very fertile, it isn't strictly literal. Here's a more word for word translation: And you shall eat the abundant old store of produce long kept, and clear out the old to make room for the new. This 'abundant old store' in Hebrew is yoshon noshan. This phrase is explained by some commentaries to mean that the farmers will profit greatly with ability to sell excess stores of grain (Rashbam). Rashi uses this double language of oldness to mean that there will be sufficient grain for three years running to solve the problem of what to do after the shmitta and yovel years. But the interpretation I'm interested in this year is that the aged grain is somehow better than the new grain. Not only will there be plenty, but it won't rot or get wormy. It will improve with age. This adds a new meaning to the mitzvah of waiting to use grains after the omer. We might have thought the purpose of the mitzvah was to thank God before using the new stocks. But it also means that there is a quality advantage in using the older stocks.
What might this 'quality advantage' be? Let's look late in the blessings. The blessings end with the phrase: I broke the bars of your yoke that were on your shoulders, and let you walk ·proudly erect; standing tall again (verse 13). This literally means that when the yoke of foreign subjugation is removed Jews will be able to walk with pride as we left Egypt b'yad rama (with an upper hand, according to the Hizkuni). The word for this in Hebrew is komemi'ut. This is the only time this word appears in our Tanach. In Modern Hebrew this word is used to describe the Israeli War of Independence, and signifies making something stand (lakum) and become established. That's how it's used in the beginning of Israel's Declaration of Statehood, 'Here the Jewish people first lived a life of political independence'. But might it mean something else?
Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai said in the Midrash (Sifra, B'chukotai 1:17) that this word is the plural of the Hebrew koma or floor. In other words we're discussing a structure that has multiple stories. The Rashbi is talking about the Temple, but I think that this can mean the nation. Our nation to succeed, flourish and endure must be a multiple story structure. We build on the foundation set for us by our ancestors. The komot are generations. This final idea in the blessing is building on the yoshon noshan concept. The old grain is the practice of our forebears, which are so very sweet and tasty when we adopt them and make them ours.
Twenty years ago Reb Chaim Soloveitchik wrote a controversial essay in Tradition Magazine (28:4). In it he blames the modern turn to the right on the break in our mesora or continuity of generations caused by the Holocaust and the total transplantation of European Jewry to Israel and the United States. I'm not advocating for all of Reb Chaim's positions or conclusions, but the emotional power of his presentation is formidable. To build our nation and religion while missing an entire generation or floor, if you will, is a daunting task. It is, therefore, our task to repair the damage by providing as much well preserved old grain to our children and grandchildren as we possibly can. We need God's blessing for this effort.