When my daughter was a baby many years ago, I remember being captivated by the ritual of bringing “first fruits” to God, as is described in Parashat Ki Tavo. (Deuteronomy 26:1-15) I don’t grow produce, so this is never a mitzvah that would ever have applied to me literally. But my daughter was the first (and only) living thing to grow out of me, and so she was the first fruit of my body. By the Torah’s logic, I owed a gift of gratitude to God for her presence in my life. I learned as a new mother what a powerful teacher about gratitude this little person would become.
I remember being enthralled with all the ways in which she was learning and growing, moment by moment. The first time she saw a caterpillar, a tulip or a puppy. The first time she sat up, suddenly seeing the world from a completely different perspective. The first time she took steps, opening up a world of possibilities for exploring the world — and on and on. I tried to imagine what it was like for this small creature to see and do these things for the very first time. Today, as a grandmother, I have the overwhelming joy of watching the wondrous process unfold again.
The Torah says in Ki Tavo, “On this day, God commands you to do these laws and statutes; do them faithfully with all your heart and all your soul.” (Deut. 26:16) The Midrash sees the phrase “this day” in the verse as superfluous, therefore inviting deeper exploration. The Midrash interprets this phrase in this way: “Every day, let these commandments be in your eyes as new, as if they had been given to you today.” (Tanhuma, also quoted in Rashi) Let every piece of Torah, every ritual and practice, every story and principle, be as endlessly fascinating and enchanting as one that was given to you today for the very first time.
The Sefat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter, the Gerer Rebbe, 1847-1905) was intrigued by the phrase “as new.” He wrote: “Is someone out there trying to fool the person, giving them something that isn’t really new, but is ‘like new’? God forbid! It is within human power to renew each thing. The renewal is there within everything, since God (quoting from the siddur) ‘renews each day, constantly, the work of Creation.’
“‘Constantly’ means in each moment. Nothing exists without the divine life-force, and the point in each thing that comes from God never grows old, since God’s words are constantly alive and flowing” (adapted from “The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet”).
“God’s words are constantly alive and flowing” and “it is within human power to renew each thing,” the Sefat Emet noted. Every teaching, every piece of wisdom, every moment of our lives is radically new, and calls us to attend to it as a gift.
Long ago, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught the same principle when he wrote, in “God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism,” that the attitude of taking things for granted is foreign to the person of faith.
The perspective of “been there, done that” seems so normal and natural nowadays (perhaps except for new parents and grandparents). There is so much in our culture that might lead us to think: There is nothing new under the sun. I have seen it all before. I can explain things and analyze them scientifically, philosophically and legally. I know it all backwards and forwards. There is nothing more to learn here.
By contrast, we have the choice to bring a lens of newness, of wonder and amazement, to everything in life. As often as we can remember to do so, we may regard everything as new — because it is! — unfolding inexplicably, never before seen and experienced as it is in this moment. Every moment of our experience can be seen with radical amazement.
It might seem that it would take a lot of energy to bring this level of attention to everything and everyone in our lives. Autopilot seems so much easier! And you might protest that it is too hard to nurture grateful awareness in the midst of the difficult times in which we live. But actually, this kind of appreciative attention is renewing, enlivening and nourishing — perhaps just what we need in these challenging times.
Imagine waking up each morning and noticing for a moment that it could have been otherwise — you might not have lived to see this day. Think of greeting the faces of your loved ones each time you see them with renewed attention to what is beautiful about them. Picture walking around your neighborhood, awake to the boundless wonders that surround us, morning noon and night — a bit like yesterday, but new today.
Consider bringing this attitude of radical wonder to Rosh Hashanah, the day our tradition regards as the birth-day of the world. On such a day, everything is new, everything is wondrous. New possibilities are everywhere and at every moment. We, as individuals — and as a country, and a global community — could make new choices at this very moment. If only we could take the opportunity. Try it for a few moments this Rosh Hashanah. If many of us did that, who knows what might change in our lives and our world?
First published at https://www.jweekly.com/2021/08/27/the-gift-and-wonder-of-newness/