THE EXCITEMENT OF NEW
Rabbi David Walk
Jews love 'Nu?' because of our obsession with questions. Our Talmud has more words for 'question' than the Inuit (formerly Eskimos) have for 'snow'. South Africans love 'gnu' or wildebeast (not to be confused with vilde chaya), because they're such a tourist favorite. But everyone loves 'new'. We all love new things. They're fresh and exciting; something to really look forward to receiving. New things even smell cool. New Car Smell is one of the most popular car freshener fragrances. So, it's worth exploring why Shavuot is the only occasion of the Jewish calendar with a 'new' offering.
When Shavuot is first described, the verse informs us, 'You must count until the day after seven weeks, the fiftieth day, and then bring a new meal offering to God (Vayikra 23:16).' And this idea is repeated when the Torah lists all the communal sacrifices of the year, 'On the day of the first fruits (yom habikurim) you shall offer a new meal offering, on the Feast of Weeks (Bamidbar 28:26).' What is 'new' about this offering or this event? The most literal interpretation is actually a legal point. There is a prohibition of using newly harvested grain until the omer offering is brought on the second day of Pesach. That's the rule for all grains, everywhere, except for wheat in the Holy Temple. The 'new' in our Shavuot offering is the wheat. No new wheat can be used in the Temple before this offering is brought, not in offerings or the shew bread (lechem hapanim). But why not? Many rabbis suggest that in the Temple only the best produce can be used, and only wheat reaped at Shavuot time is sufficiently ripe for Temple use.
However, the term 'new' appears twice, so, many authorities believe that there's another idea lurking in this scenario. Remember, the verse emphasizes that this holiday comes at the end of a 49-day count or after seven weeks. Therefore, many believe that this helps to explain why we're counting in the first place. We're enumerating these days out of excitement over the anticipated rendezvous with God at the foot of Mt. Sinai. It's all a sign of our great enthusiasm for receiving God's law. This contrasts with the view I espoused a few weeks ago when I explained that counting the days and weeks are for personal improvement. But, what can you do, we rabbis are a fickle lot.
With this in mind, every year during the counting of the omer, we should be building excitement for a renewal of our covenant with God. It's l'havdil like loving couples who ceremoniously renew their wedding vows. What does this entail? How should we prepare?
Rav Yehudah Amital, late Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat har Etziyon, gave a wondrous dual answer in 1997. Rav Amital began by asking why the story of Yitro coming to greet Moshe precedes the story of the epiphany. This is in spite of the fact that many authorities believe that Yitro's appearance came after the giving of the Torah. The great Rosh Yeshiva gave two answers. First, Yitro teaches us that the acceptance of Torah is, by its nature, voluntary like that of Yitro. All the stories about coercion at Mt. Sinai must be understood as metaphoric. The true sentiment of the Jews is contained in the magnificent proclamation, 'We will do and we will understand (na'aseh v'nishma, Shmot 24:7).' Secondly, Yitro not only taught that Torah should be accepted voluntarily, but by explaining to Moshe how to organize an efficient court system, he demonstrated that there is 'morality, a basic system of right and wrong, even before the giving of formal commandments.' Yitro presented the concept that Torah laws must be applied in a fair and reasonable manner, 'because we have a basic human urge to do these things since we think...they are the RIGHT thing to do.' We must approach Shavuot with an enthusiasm for reaccepting Torah freely for it embodies the ethics and morality our humanity demands of us.
I'd like to add to that inspiring idea. Every day, we express the thought which I strongly believe should inform our spiritual preparation for Shavuot. In the blessing which precedes our morning recitation of Shema, we declare: O Compassionate Parent, have compassion upon us and instill in our hearts the passion to understand and discern; to listen, learn and teach; to safeguard, perform and fulfill all the teachings of Your Torah, in love. There are three commitments in that declaration. The first is visceral and emotional, the second is intellectual and cerebral and the third is active and behavioral. We dedicate our hearts, minds and hands to the precepts of God's Torah.
This paragraph has a parallel blessing before the evening recitation of Shema. There we state more briefly our commitment to Torah and mitzvot because they are 'our lives and the length of our days'. What I find interesting, in the Ashkenazick rite, is that these paragraphs have different introductions. At night we describe the 'eternal love (ahavat olam)' of God for the Jewish people, in the bright light of day we proudly acknowledge God's great, abundant or massive love (ahava raba) for our people. As we approach Shavuot, we should feel the love.
The great preparation for the Time of the Giving of Our Torah is the excitement over reaccepting this gift for two amazing reasons. According to Rav Amital, we anticipate this moment because we, like Yitro, know it's right and good. According to the blessing of Shema, because of God's great and everlasting love.
There's an argument about whether to stand or sit during Torah reading. Is the reading a recreation of Mt. Sinai (stand) or an exercise in Torah study (sit, relax)? But I don't understand how anyone can sit Shavuot morning. We must be quivering with excitement over the prospect of accepting God's greatest gift to humanity, because it's brand new, again. Nu, isn't that worth staying for?