The old new, and the new holy - a d'varling for Kabbalat Shabbat
May 31, 2019
One of the verses in this week's Torah portion, Bechukotai, says that if we walk in God's ways and keep the mitzvot, we will find ourselves in a position where we need to clear out the old grain to make room for the new. (Lev. 26:10) I'll say more tomorrow morning about what it might mean to walk in God's ways. Tonight I want to stay with this one little half-verse about grain.
Rashi explains that this verse means that the old grain we've stored up will stay good and sweet and healthy. It won't turn rancid or go bad. Even years after its harvest, it will still be nourishing and delicious. And eventually we'll have to move it out of our granaries to make room for the new grain, because the prosperity and abundance are going to just keep flowing.
A whole bunch of other subsequent commentators follow in Rashi's footsteps. Everyone seems to agree: this verse means we'll have more grain than we need, and miraculously it will not rot, and we'll need to clear it out to make room for the new harvest.
Okay, so what? Most of us today are not farmers. We don't have granaries. But if we read this verse metaphorically, I think it offers a deep teaching about spiritual life. The first promise I think Torah is making to us is that old grain -- old traditions, old pathways, old teachings, old ideas -- will still nourish. Our ancient texts and traditions remain rich and full of sweetness.
The Hasidic master known as the Sfat Emet notes, in his commentary on this week's Torah portion, that when we immerse ourselves in Torah we may only "get" 1/1000th of its meaning. And that's okay! What matters is that we're immersing. What matters is that we're learning, delving into the traditions and seeing how they shape us. They are old grain that still nourishes.
And the second promise I think Torah makes here is that the abundance of Jewish wisdom, the abundance in spiritual practice, the abundance that comes from tending our spiritual selves through learning, study, mitzvah, ritual, prayer, poetry, text and tradition -- that abundance doesn't stop. On the contrary, it keeps flowing. It is still flowing. It will always be flowing.
And sometimes we have to move the old ideas and teachings and practices to the side in order to make way for the new. Just as our priestly ancestors once moved the ashes off the altar so the eternal flame could continue burning, sometimes we need to let go of old interpretations or practices in order to make space for new ones that meet our spiritual needs in this hour.
Does this sound far-fetched? Am I stretching too far to find meaning in a verse that on its surface is about literal grain?
Rav Kook -- the first chief rabbi of what would become the State of Israel -- offered the teaching that "the old shall be made new, and the new shall be made holy." In Hebrew, הישן יתחדש והחדש יתקדש / ha-yashan yitchadesh v'ha-chadash yitkadesh. And that first word, ha-yashan, "the old" -- is the same word we find in this week's Torah portion, the word for old grain.
Rav Kook found in ancient teachings about storing and using old grain a powerful teaching about renewing modern spiritual life. Old grain, old ideas, old practices will be made new. We can renew ancient spiritual practices and make them alive in our hearts and souls. We can (I would argue we must) turn to that old grain and find sustenance in it!
And we can also sanctify new ideas and teachings and practices. We can make the new holy. That's the work of spiritual practice writ large: making the old new, and the new holy. Turning to the "old grain" that's already in our granaries, while also trusting that the "new grain," the new ideas and teachings flowing now, are also a source of spiritual nourishment and plenty.
May this Shabbes nourish us with wisdom both ancient and modern. May we drink deep from the ancient well of sacred time and traditional practices, and also from the newly-flowing stream of new traditions and translations and ideas. And in so doing, may we nourish our hearts and souls so that we can return to the new week restored and renewed in all that we are.
This is the d'varling I offered at my shul tonight at Kabbalat Shabbat services. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)