In this week’s Parsha, we read of the various Moadim, as well as korbanot that were brought in conjunction with the various Chagim. Only two of these korbanot, the Korban Omer which was brought on the first day of Chol HaMoed Pessach and the Shtai HaLechem which was brought on Shavuot are described in detail, and therefore stand out from the other sacrifices which are mentioned in the Parsha. This is because they are in fact mitzvoth which are independent of the Chagim they are associated with, and should not be confused with the Korban Mussaf which was brought in conjunction with, and is inextricably linked, to the Chag. (See for example Rashi 23:12 and 23:18-19, who explicitly makes this point). The korbanot brought as Mussafin will be described later, in Parshat Pinchas (Bamidbar 28-29), and therefore are only alluded to in our Parsha. (This is Rashi’s explanation. See also Ibn Ezra and Seforno, all on 23:8. Abarbanel, however, offers a different explanation as to the allusions to korbanot in our Parsha).
The Korban Omer and Shtai HaLechem, however, are different. These two korbanot in fact serve the same purpose, namely to enable Bnai Yisrael to eat from the new grains which are only ripening at this point of the year. The Korban Omer allows Bnai Yisrael to eat from the new grain (“chadash”) immediately after the korban is brought on the 16th of Nissan, but only when the Shtai HaLechem is offered on Shavuot may the new grain be used for the service in the Beit HaMikdash. Hence, the two korbanot essentially function as “bookends” in establishing the permissibility of eating from the new crop. Abarbanel notes that the korbanot are also linked philosophically. The Korban Omer is brought from barley, a grain more commonly used for animal feed than for human consumption. This type of grain is symbolic of the status of Bnai Yisrael when they left Mitzrayim, a nation physically free but morally and ethically lacking and corrupted by the long years of slavery in Egypt. As such the initial sacrifice at they bring at this point of the year is from barley, reflecting the animal nature of their existence at the time of Yitziat Mitzrayim. The period leading up to Shavuot is a period of spiritual preparation and cleansing, culminating in Maamad Har Sinai and Matan Torah. It is at this point that Bnai Yisrael becomes a spiritual nation. Hence the Korban of the Shtai HaLechem is brought from wheat. The Torah refers to this korban as both a “Mincha Chadasha”, a new offering, and “Bikurim”, the first fruits. These terms, says Abarbanel, coincide with and remind us of the reborn (new) spirit of the nation. Furthermore, wheat is not only a grain associated with human consumption. It is also different from other fruits brought as bikurim in that it cannot be consumed without prior preparation. This means that in order to offer it as a korban it must first be processed, a symbol of human intelligence and understanding. This too reflects Bnai Yisrael’s progress since they left Egypt.
It is instructive to note that in Abarbanel’s way of thinking, intellectual and cognitive growth is linked to spiritual development. When man moves beyond the stage of being an animal, as signified by the Korban Omer, it is not merely by employing cognitive abilities. In fact, the implication seems to be that simply developing intelligence does not elevate man above the level of being an animal; it merely makes him a more sophisticated animal. In order to fully develop as a human being, as signified by the Shtai HaLechem, one needs to add a spiritual component to his development as well.
The fact that these two korbanot are brought at this particular juncture of the year is clearly linked to the agricultural cycle in Eretz Yisrael. After all, a korban whose purpose is to permit chadash, be it in society in general or the mikdash in particular, is timed to coincide with the period where these crops ripen and are readied for harvest. The Chagim, while obviously commemorative of the historical events of the period (or perhaps not so clearly, as in the case of Shavuot, which is not even mentioned by name in the Parsha), are also significant because of their connection to the agricultural cycle. Abarbanel uses this point as a way of explaining why neither Pessach nor Shavuot are referred to as “Shabbaton”, a term which is reserved for Sukkot. The concept of Shabbaton is one of complete tranquility and serenity, both physically and mentally. This is a state which someone who is worried about his crops and livelihood can not expect to achieve. It is impossible, even on Chag, for an individual to fully divorce himself from the worries of the everyday and the demands of a livelihood. Mikra Kodesh, yes; Shabbaton, hardly. Pessach and Shavuot, which mark the beginning of the agricultural cycle, are times when an individual must force himself to be idle, despite the urge to be out in the fields, overseeing every aspect of the care and harvest of the year’s crop. To be relaxed and tranquil at this point, with all of the year’s prosperity hanging in the balance, is an impossible demand to make of an individual. Sukkot, on the other hand, being celebrated when the harvest has been completed and prepared for the winter, is a time of serenity. The work is done, and what remains is to appreciate what one has, and thank Hashem for it. This is a time of Shabbaton.
We can, however, suggest another connection between these two korbanot and Chag HaShavuot. When introducing the concept of Korban HaOmer, the passuk prefaces the mitzvah with the statement “ki tavou el haaretz”, “when you come to the land”(23:10). The Gemara in Menachot (84a) derives from this statement that the obligation to bring the Korban HaOmer only began when Bnai Yisrael entered the Land of Israel. R. Meir Simcha Cohen of Divinsk, popularly known as Meshech Chochma, sees a different significance in the connection between the mitzvah and entering the land. Noting that the parsha (small “p”) describing these two korbanot ends with a repetition of the previously mentioned mitzvah (see 19:9) of Leket, Shichacha and Peah (23:22), Mesech Chochma suggests that the parsha is in fact strengthening the connection between mitzvah observance, as represented by Shavuot, and life in general. It is not Hashem’s intention that Bnai Yisarel become caught up in working the land only to lose sight of their spiritual and moral responsibilities. He therefore added many mitzvoth to everyday activities in order to turn them into vehicles which strengthen man’s connection to Hashem and encourage personal improvement. In this case, we see a mitzvah attached to each stage of the planting and harvesting cycle. When one initially plants, he must be concerned with fulfilling the mitzvoth of bringing the Korban HaOmer and Shtai HaLechem. During the harvest, he is proscribed from picking up harvest items that fell (Leket), and when the harvest is complete he must leave part of his field for the poor to harvest (Peah). The upshot is that every stage of the process has been sanctified through fulfillment of a mitzvah. These are not just mitzvoth, however. Rather, they are mitzvoth which serve to strengthen an individual’s sense of mercy and compassion. Moreover, the Torah wishes to disabuse us of the always dangerous notion of compartmentalization. It is easy to view mitzvoth as a system of laws and regulations. In fact, the mitzvoth are much more than that. The Torah that we received on Shavuot is also the basis of common moral and ethical behavior. To rely on human nature as the arbitrator of a moral code is insufficient. In order to behave ethically, man needs a guide, or he will quickly sink to all levels of depravity, often cloaking such behavior in moralistic arguments. Thus, the we are reminded by the repetition of the mitzvoth of Leket, Shichacha and Peah, mitzvoth that are all about compassion for the weaker segments of society, that Chag HaShavuot is a celebration of receiving not the Law, but the Torah, which guides us in every facet of our lives, legal and ethical, and should permeate every fiber of our personalities.