**Below, I share my President’s Message that was given to my congregation on Erev Rosh Hashanah. It is short, and I believe the message to be true for all of our Jewish communities, as we are one family, or mishpachah. I wrote it down, so I wanted to share it here for those who could not attend, and also for the general reader.
I want to wish you all a “Shana Tovah U’Metukah, ” Or a good and sweet New Year. Thank you all for being flexible and adapting to Temple [Insert Schul/Synagogue Name] via Zoom. The past 6 or 7 months have been strange to say the least, and at times, most difficult and sad. I am beyond honored to represent the Temple as President during a time of great challenge; but I have also been able to be a part of witnessing the beauty of the true spirit of our congregation. The body of Temple [Name here] might be on “Main Street in Anonymoustown USA,” but the soul of the congregation manifests in all of you here, and also in those unable to be today.
We have been forced to look at the world differently, but still with positivity amidst obstacles. Those who know me well know that I am an avid fan of the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and I would like to share one of his many beautiful quotes: “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement…get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”
And amazed I have been. I have been amazed by our ability to keep Temple [Redacted Specific Name] not only alive, but thriving. Our Friday evening services are well-attended and invigorating. Our Religious School is buzzing with the constant excitement of Jewish learning, and our weekend Midrash and Torah study classes challenge and enliven our spirits. To put it frankly, Temple has never closed, nor should it ever. We have, as the Jewish people have always done, adapted.
What has also remained unchanged is our need for your help. During these difficult times, and as we work to re-enter our building in the future we will be in need of funds for required deep-cleaning, ensuring that our Temple has proper ventilation, and a number of other costs that we never could have imagined incurring less than a year ago. Your help, as always, is not only appreciated, but needed now, perhaps more than ever. We will not stop offering, and we hope you do not either.
Famous Medieval Torah Scholar Maimonides claims that contained within the sound of the Shofar is a personal message. It is a time to awaken from whatever respective slumbers have kept us from moving forward. The blast of the Shofar contains new beginnings. As we begin the year 5781, perhaps we should all listen to the same blast that pierced the air during the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai so many years ago. As we create new beginnings, I urge you to do so with Temple [Name Again] in mind. Like the blast of the Shofar, our goal is to continue to ring out through the generations as a center of vibrant Jewish life. We can only do so if we support one another, and our small Jewish community.
I wish all of you and your families a sweet and happy New Year, and a meaningful Yamim Noraim. Todah rabah and thank you very much!
We find ourselves in the middle of the moth of Elul. This sixth month of the Jewish year immediately precedes the Norim Yoraim (The Days of Awe), or what is commonly known as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, respectively. In Hebrew, Elul is spelled “aleph, lamed, vav, lamed,” which is often viewed as an acronym of the phrase “Ani l’dodi v’dodi li”, or “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” These romantic words come to us from the Song of Songs, which we can find in our tradition’s canon thanks in large part to Rabbi Akiva, who saw in the Song of Songs more than just a love poem. He saw a proclamation of love between God and His people. If God is our beloved, what does it mean in a modern manner, with our contemporary set of sensibilities, to love God? This is a question for reflection that we can all ask ourselves during the contemplative month of Elul. As I have personally been studying Torah, pondering my own life, and the lives I see and hear of all around me, I have come to a realization: There is a Divine plan at work, but we tend to resist following it.
We can see history of this resistance of Divine wisdom if we look at this past week’s parshah, Ki Tavo. God tells the people, “And I have led you forty years in the wilderness; your clothes are not waxen old upon you, and thy shoe is not waxen old upon thy foot…” (Deut. 19:4). God tells the people that he has led them in a roundabout manner for forty long years, not because it was the most direct route to the Promised Land, but because He knew that the people of Israel needed time to learn before they were to enter Canaan. There is an Aggadic anecdote in the Talmud that speaks to this exact plan. God took care of the people’s basic needs (see the clothes and shoes above), so that they would have time to study Torah, and take to heart the words of God without the worries of what psychology’s Maslow would refer to as the most basic of physiological needs. The Talmudic story gets interesting due to the fact that it claims that when the Canaanites first caught wind that the people of Israel were about to enter into the land, they burned newly planted seeds, uprooted trees, and destroyed buildings. Essentially, the Canaanites were akin to an angry tenant who, upon notice of eviction, figured they would trash the place. God of course knew of this, and decided to lead the people of Israel on a forty-year trek that would force the Canaanites to repair and rebuild what they had damaged. After all, God had promised Abraham for his descendants “eretz z’vat chalav u’dvash”—a land flowing with milk and honey.
As we can see above, God had a plan to make the lives of the people of Israel better, and He wanted to keep his promise. Not only was He working “behind the scenes,” but He was also using the allotted time to guide and educate the people. If you read the Prophets of the Nevi’im, you are quite aware that God’s teachings were not always first and foremost on the minds of the people once they got comfortable in their new milk and honey-laden digs. God often expressed his abandonment pains through the Prophets. After all of the teaching and the warning, the people still were led astray by false prophets and idols.
Fast forward to today. We are living in a divided society wherein the warnings and teachings of the learned are ignored, and false prophets fill the airwaves. We are distracted by bumper stickers, flags, and the colors of a party. We are worshipping empty heads, and people have found their gods in the senseless noise of it all. Back to our original question; what does it mean to love God? I believe it is our responsibility as Jews to step back and seriously consider this query. If you believe, as the Kabbalists (and myself) do, you know that Divinity is in every person, affixed there during the thunderous shattering of creation. When a pharaoh sits on the throne and stokes the fires of hatred in order to dim inner lights, we must resist.
I grew up, as many, or at least most of us, probably did, believing in our land as the greatest in the world. There is no doubt that drastic changes have occurred. We have become distracted, led astray by the yetzer hara (evil inclination) that has been pushed to the forefront of the body politic by a boy-king who worships only himself. It is time for us to remember why we were led through the wilderness for all those years. If loving God is loving the world that God created, and every thing that God created, why are we falling short? Today, there exist many gods that one can worship, but the relationship with the gods of the monetary and material will always be unidirectional; they will never love you back. Is it time to hold a mirror up to ourselves, and truly reflect (pun intended).
Can we find our way back to God, whatever He or She means to you? I believe we can, but only if we are willing to find our way back to love, for there will we find Him or Her—and there will we find the purpose that is hidden just beyond the profane. I challenge all of us–dare to delve into the holy this New Year, and we can begin to change the world. There is a plan, and I pray that we allow Divine work to be done. As the ancient cry of the shofar rings out this month and beyond, may we pray that it cuts through the noise of our current world, and may we answer its call with reflection which leads to redemption and reconciliation with the true nature of the Divine.
This week, and possibly when you are reading this, many Jewish people around the world are mourning and fasting on what is the most sorrowful day on the Jewish calendar. We have arrived at the 9th of Av, or Tisha B’Av. So many tragic and devastating events are reported to have happened in history on or around the 9th of Av, explaining the reason for the mourning. The two most prominent events associated with this date are the destruction of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, with the first being destroyed in 586 BCE by Nebuchadnezzar (Babylonia), and the second in 70 CE by Titus (Rome). This date is also associated with the formal defeat of Bar Kochba’s rebellion, and the subsequent Roman recapture of Jerusalem. Let’s keep going. The 9th of Av (in the year 1290 CE) was also when Edward I strongly urged, via an edict, that all Jews leave England. Many people think of the year 1492 as the year that “Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Well, on the 9th of Av in 1492, the Jews were expelled from Spain by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Oh, and World War I began on the 9th of Av in 1914. Enough already, right?
What did the sages think? Just to scrape the surface a bit: Rabbi Akiva, one of our Talmudic stalwarts, said that whoever works on the 9th of Av will never see a sign of a blessing, while some other sages believed that the joy of Jerusalem will never be renewed if one does not specifically mourn for Jerusalem on the 9th of Av (B. ta 30b). The Book of Lamentations (which is traditionally read on Tisha B’Av) says, “She weepeth, yea, she weepeth in the night” (Lam. 1:2). Rabbi Yohanan thought that the “double weepeth” represented the First and Second Temples, respectively. Tisha B’av is a tragedy–There is no joyful break the fast a la Yom Kippur. In fact, Jews are urged to maintain a serious tone throughout the day, displaying the gravity of what is being represented.
How is this relevant right now? Unfortunately, Tisha B’Av 5780 is beginning to look foolishly grim, and I feel it must be addressed. As we all know, we are living in what has become the time of COVID-19, and what a confusing tsuris-laden experience it has all been thus far. We are faced with a time that will be looked back upon by historians as tumultuous and dangerous, to say the least. As individuals squabble over the most basic protection (a facemask!) against an airborne illness, people are dying in great numbers. As of this moment, over 150,000 Americans have died of COVID-19. The number of those who have died does no justice to the fact that each of these “statistics” was an elaborate and beautiful “Etz Chayim” or “Tree of Life,” which, if you believe anything about Kabbalah, contained sparks of Divinity within them. With each life lost, we lost a bit of ourselves and the “Echad” or Unity that holds us all together in a macro sense.
Now, we are standing on the precipice of what seems to be a terrible mistake. Is this an error in judgment by so many, or something else? Honestly, it feels a bit sinister. During a time when we must admit that we know very little about COVID-19, especially its long-term impact, we are considering opening up schools and sending in our precious children, their teachers, and many staff members who could so easily become ill themselves, or spread this deadly disease to vulnerable others. How can we expose our children, who trust us to protect them from harm, to a virus that could kill them? Are we so lost? Many people talk of the financial strain that will be placed on them if school does not open up. School is not a child care center, and our teachers are not babysitters. Our schools are supposed to be places of exploration and learning, and our teachers–the educators and guides leading our greenest citizens on the journey of discovery in a safe environment. Yes, school has not always proven to be 100 percent safe (the horrible reality of school shootings, bullying, etc. do exist), but do we ever consciously place our children in harm’s way? Our society is about to knowingly take advantage of the inborn trust of our children, and risk their lives for the sake of what is perceived as convenience. We might struggle financially while we wait for the pandemic to conclude in some form or fashion; but we can recover financially. How can we emotionally recover from the loss of a loved one due to decisions that were made with full knowledge of the lethal potentialities?
I am reminded of a Talmudic writing regarding the binding of Isaac. According to this Aggadic writing, Satan went to Isaac’s mother Sarah, in the form of Isaac himself, while he was bound by his own father, Abraham. When Sarah saw her son, she asked, “What did your father do?” He answered, saying: “My father took me, led me up hills and down into valleys, until finally he brought me up to the summit of a high and towering mountain, where he built an altar, set out the firewood, bound me upon the altar, and grasped a knife to cut my throat. Had not the Holy One said to him, ‘Lay not thy hand upon the lad,’ I would have been slaughtered.” It was said that before Satan even finished telling the story, Sarah’s soul left her (Tanhuma, Va-yera 23; Eccles. R. 9:7).
Whenever a new “plan” for a school opening comes out, I feel a bit like Sarah from the story–I want to jump out of my own skin. Are we collectively prepared to lead our children, who follow us as Isaac so willingly followed Abraham, to a crude altar to be sacrificed? Are we prepared to tell that story, and have that be written and told by others? I am praying that the Holy One will intercede at the last moment again, and we will know that we have all been tested as Abraham was. However, if Judaism teaches us anything, it is to pray for things as if they depended on God, but to act as if everything depends upon us–our Mishkan T’Filah siddur tells us to do so come every Shabbat.
While mourning on the 9th of Av or Tisha B’Av, I have decided to do so with hope in my heart. There is still time to do the right thing, to make corrections, and follow through with sensible and safe decisions. I pray that we can all look into the eyes of our children, and know that we are not sending them into what we know to be danger. I feel the pull in the collective air between yetzer ha-tov and yetzer ha-ra, or our good and evil inclinations. Let the good overcome the evil, and let our children be safe, even if it means inconvenience and financial struggle in the short-term.
If we have free will, and the Divine is awaiting our next move, I hope that we decide to save lives that we have the power to save. Some part of most of us must know that distancing desks, mandating masks to six-year-olds, and staggering schedules is equivalent to setting a room on fire because we think it will clean up spilled water. Yes, action is being taken, but the place is now burning. Sometimes doing less is the answer. We need to clean up the mess in the correct fashion, not create more devastation and chaos.
I pray that this 9th day of the month of Av will not consist of actions that lead to an outcome that will be added to the list of tragedies surrounding this day. Let’s be smart, and protect and love one another.
While reading some Talmudic and Aggadic writings, I came across a section from Pirkei Avot that I simply could not ignore. Now, for those not familiar, Pirkei Avot, (meaning “Ethics of our Fathers”) is a section of the Mishnah, which is the first text of the oral Jewish law. The writings of Pirkei Avot are mostly aggadic, and do not contain halakha (or law). What we have in this Jewish text are the thoughts and ideas in the collective consciousness of the rabbis at the time of the Mishnah. These writings would be dated around the beginning of the Common Era. We are talking about thoughts from the great rabbinic minds of approximately 2,000 years ago. It might be easy to write off such mature texts as antiquated or obsolete. The question becomes–does human nature ever truly change?
Let’s look at Pirkei Avot 5:7
According to this chapter and verse, there exist seven characteristics in a person whose mind is imperfectly developed, and seven in a person who is wise. What are the seven characteristics of one who is wise? According to the rabbis:
A wise man does not speak before one who is greater than he in wisdom.
A wise man does not break in on the words of his fellow.
A wise man is not hasty to answer.
A wise man asks what is relevant and answers what is appropriate.
A wise man speaks on the first point first and on the last point last.
A wise man says of that which he has not heard: “I have not heard it.”
A wise man acknowledges the truth.
I do realize that I utilized the words “wise man.” I used “man” as opposed to “person” because this verse catalyzed a visceral reaction in me as it relates to one particular man. I am confident that by the time you are finished reading, I will not have been mistaken when thinking that it was unnecessary to even type his name on the page.
It is not a secret that our country is sick and in need of r’fuah sh’leimah, or a complete healing. As the global pandemic continues to ravage the citizens of our nation, we are also at a time of reckoning in terms of this country’s long-surviving systemic racism. While it would be unfair to expect any one human being to possess the capacity to single-handedly fix the multitude of issues and injustices of this country–it does not seem as if anyone is asking for such prolificness. What am I asking for?
I am asking for someone who defers to, and especially does not denigrate, the foremost expert on infectious diseases in the country during a deadly pandemic–someone who does not speak before one who is greater than he in wisdom. I am asking for someone who, when faced with opposing viewpoints, let alone simple fact-checking, does not angrily stop an interview–someone who does not break in on the words of his fellow. I am asking for someone who does not “tweet” or speak before considering the aftershock. Yes, anti-semitic, racist, and hurtful and baseless statements do matter–someone who is not hasty to answer. I am asking for someone who when faced with the largest public health crisis in a century, and during a time of unspeakable pain and outcry from people of color, does not hold a dangerous and irresponsible rally where he talks about how well he drinks water and walks down ramps–someone who asks what is relevant and answers what is appropriate. I am asking for someone who, when faced with the aforementioned significant issues and direct questions, does not deflect and discuss the artificiality of media or the water in a dishwasher–someone who speaks on the first point first and on the last point last. I am asking for someone who, instead of assembling and deferring to a qualified team of experts, talks of possessing a “mind of extreme intelligence and stability”–someone who says of that which he has not heard: “I have not not heard it.” I am asking for someone who simply does not lie, especially an approximated 23.8 times per day–someone who acknowledges the truth.
According to the rabbis of two millennia ago, the reverse of these seven characteristics portray a mind that is imperfectly developed. This is not a political post, but a post of great concern for the welfare of the country that I was told was “tviz’ot goyim,” or coveted by all the nations. For those who would follow this particular man as if he were a sage or a prophet, I would urge you to be wary. The Talmud seems to be speaking to you as well. Rabbi Judah said in the name of Rav: “When a man boasts, if he is a sage, his wisdom departs from him; if he is a prophet, his gift of prophecy departs from him” (B Pes. 66b.) What “boasts” do I speak of?
“No one is more conservative than me.”
“No one is stronger on the Second Amendment than me.”
“No one respects women more than me. No one reads the Bible more than me.”
“There’s nobody more pro-Israel than I am.”
“There’s nobody that’s done so much for equality as I have.”
“There’s nobody who feels more strongly about women’s health issues.”
“Nobody knows more about taxes than me, maybe in the history of the world.”
I truly pray that everyone in this country be granted peace and good health. The wounds are deep right now, and we need a steady hand to steer the ship during these especially tumultuous times, not a clouded mind rife with imperfection and boastfulness. It does not take 2,000 year old texts to see this–but in case it does, you can read again from the beginning. And, wow, there is certainly so much more where that came from.
I pray that we cross over this river and enter the promised land as a society sooner rather than later. We do not need a sage or a prophet. We just need clarity and decency. Stay healthy and be well.
When G-d speaks to Moses in Exodus 3:8, He says, “…and I am come down to deliver them out of the hands of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey.” G-d talks of the Promised Land of Canaan as a land flowing with milk and honey, or “eretz zavat chalav udevash.” The characterization of the Promised Land as a land “flowing with milk and honey” is found frequently throughout the Torah. G-d uses this phrase to juxtapose the fertility and freedom of the unknown land of Canaan with the harsh conditions of Egyptian servitude. The phrase “eretz zavat chalav udevash” is later used in the Torah in ironic fashion during the mutiny of Korach and his followers. While questioning the leadership and decision-making of Moses, Dathan and Eliab ask Moses, “is it a small thing that thou hast brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness…” (Num. 16:13). After all of the horrors of slavery in Egypt, Korach and his followers actually refer to Egypt as “eretz zavat chalav udevash.”
There are many interpretations and opinions concerning the exact meaning of Canaan being “a land flowing with milk and honey.” In Deuteronomy 33:13, it is said, “And of Joseph he said: Blessed of the Lord be His land.” The Talmud explains that Joseph’s land (the Promised Land) was the most blessed of them all. This was a gorgeous land irrigated by springs, open to the sun and the moon, full of abundance, and not lacking a single blessing (Sif Deut. 353.) In Jeremiah 3:19, the Land of Israel is referred to as “tziv’ot goyim,” or a land “desired and coveted by all the nations” (MTeh 5:1). Throughout the Tanach, it is made abundantly clear that the land of Israel was a place of abundance of land and spirit. When compared to the physical, mental, and spiritual slavery of Egypt, why would some turn their backs on “eretz zavat chalav udevash?”
It seems that we arrive at a set of issues, rather than one. Let us now look at the current state of affairs in our own country. For Black Americans and Americans of color, is modern America as Egypt was to the Israelites? We have spoken of the terrors of anti-Semitism and gender inequality, among other social issues. What it seems we desperately need to touch upon is not only the prevalent racial inequality, but the imminent danger that coincides with being black in America. While Reading Yossi Klein Halevi’s “At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden,” I was moved when he spoke of removing his kippah to hide his Jewishness while in the Palestinian-controlled West Bank. But what if the kippah is permanent and irremovable? There is no “‘passing” when the target of hatred against you is what happens to be your shade of skin. Many have spoken of the “American Dream” as some modern vision of “eretz zavat chalav udevash.” The systemic racism so ingrained into American life has hopefully given pause to those who would turn a blind eye to the extreme plight of their neighbors. as Ibram X. Kendi, Director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, tells us, many people are living an “American Nightmare.” Kendi, in his piece for The Atlantic, writes:
“While black Americans view their experience as the American nightmare, racist Americans view black Americans as the American nightmare. Racist Americans, especially those racists who are white, view themselves as the embodiment of the American dream. All that makes America great. All that will make America great again. All that will keep America great.”
In an America built largely upon the backs of slaves, how can we face the hardened Pharaoh’s heart of our past with the desire to be a modern land flowing with milk and honey? We can never be this notion of some idyllic nation when we do not treat our fellow human beings with love, dignity, and respect. To honor and love one another is the Jewish way. Our sages of the Talmud would likely be disturbed with the state of race relations in our contemporary society. Ben-Zoma said: “Who is honored? He who honors his fellow man” (Avot 4:1). Rabbi Eliezer said, “Let the honor of your fellow be as dear to you as your own” (Avot 2:10). The sages are clear, not only should we be treating one another honorably, but we should actually take how others are being treated very personally.
We cannot be a land flowing with milk and honey when black men are killed defenseless in the street. We cannot be a land flowing with milk and honey when a black woman is shot in her bed by police. We cannot be a land flowing with milk and honey when “jogging while black” is a crime punishable by death. We cannot be a land flowing with milk and honey when black parents must talk with their black children about how to survive being outside their houses.
It is our responsibility as Jews to not only “not” be racist, but to be anti-racist. This distinction is made clear in the Talmud: “He who joins himself to those who commit transgressions, though he does not do what they do, will nevertheless receive punishment as one of them” (ARN 30.). We cannot sit idly by to avoid the problem. Silence is compliance. We must listen to those who are being victimized, and we must act accordingly, in whatever way we are capable. According to the Talmud, The Holy One said to Israel: “My children, what do I seek from you? I seek no more than that you love one another and honor one another” (TdE 26.) How simple the words seem, but how distant the reality that they represent appears to be.
It is our duty as Jews to tackle issues that impact our fellow human beings– our neighbors on this earth. First, we must admit that we do not currently live in a land flowing with milk and honey. Perhaps we can learn something from the people of Israel’s trek through the wilderness in the Torah. As true allies and anti-racists, we will be faced with moments that are uncomfortable. We need to face these moments and not turn back. We need to reflect on ourselves without diverting our eyes. When the wilderness of change begins to feel disagreeable, we might long in those moments for a return to the tolerable ignorance of Egypt. Perhaps we will become as Korach’s followers and say, “…thou hast brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness.” Deep within, we will know that we never lived in a land flowing with milk and honey. There has been no “American Dream”; there cannot be when so many are living an “American Nightmare.” We must always have hope coupled with action. If we work toward a future of equality, love, respect, honor, and dignity, we can start discussing the horizon. The horizon where we truly are “tziv’ot goyim,” or a land that is desired and coveted by all nations– “eretz zavat chalav udevash.” If we desire a land open to the sun and the moon, irrigated by springs, and not void of a single blessing– there is certainly much work to be done.
I would like to leave you with an excerpt from the poem Let American Be America Again by the great Langston Hughes:
“Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)“
May we all be blessed to live in a world that inches closer to freedom, even if ever-so-slightly. A world where we can at least begin to taste the savory sweet milk and honey of the Promised Land of equality.
It is very likely that these words you are about to consume have been largely influenced by my current choice of reading material. My Grandfather’s Blessings by Rachel Naomi Remen M.D. is a work full of spirit and hope. Dr. Remen spends much of the book talking about how much she has learned not only from life as a physician who treats many terminally ill patients, but also how much she has learned from death. Dr. Remen writes of how many of us avoid death as subject matter altogether, or how we often rely upon a myriad of coping mechanisms in order to try and skirt around the sometimes-taboo topic. Our own Torah ends with the death of the greatest prophet of all–Moses. In Deuteronomy, or “Devarim” in Hebrew, we read of the end of a wondrous life. As Dr. Remen often saw death as a learning experience, and sometimes even a blessing, we can examine the last bit of Torah in order to uncover so many beautiful lessons from the life and death of the one and only Moses.
Talmudic Rabbi Tarfon famously wrote, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either” (Pirke Avot 2:21). In Deuteronomy it is written, “And Moses went up from the plain of Moab unto mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, that is over Jericho. And the Lord showed him all the land…” (Deut. 34:1). We continue in 34:4 with, “And the Lord said unto him: ‘This is the land which I swore unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, saying: I will give it unto thy seed; I have caused thee to see it with thine eyes, but thou shalt not go over thither’.” The Lord leads Moses up to the top of a mountain only to examine with his own two eyes the promised land in all of its glory. Now, Moses is already aware that he will not enter the promised land, but has kept the journey afloat with all of its trials and tribulations for many years nonetheless. In Numbers 20:12, G-d let both Moses and Aaron know that they would not be permitted to enter the promised land. Due to a sin that seems to be of unknown origin, G-d says, “…you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” Moses knew he would never cross the Jordan to step foot on the soil of the promised land, but he did not desist from the work. Moses, the great prophet that he was, knew that this divine task was not about ego or hubris–this journey was not about him at all, but he was a part, albeit a very vital one, of something much greater and holier than himself.
How many opportunities to serve do we pass up in our own lives because we are convinced that we may never see the fruits of our labor? Do we stop feeding the hungry because we may never see the end of hunger? Do we cease from caring for our planet because we may perhaps be gone before climate change becomes truly devastating? The work never ends, and we can only hope to live our lives as an actionable example to those who will pick up right where we left off. Have we prepared our own Joshua for the work that lies ahead? It is written, “And Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom; for Moses had laid his hands upon him” (Deut. 34:9). Moses had been preparing Joshua to continue the work that must not desist. Joshua would lead the people of Israel across the Jordan and into the promised land. “No sooner did the sun of Moses set, than the sun of Joshua rose” (Talmud via Hertz p. 916). for those who know “the showbiz,” here is a little analogy: Moses had originated the role in the show, his contract was up, but the run was not over. Joshua stepped in immediately, and, as they say, “the show must go on.” And go on it did. How appropriate is it that we read of Moses’ death on Simchat Torah, which celebrates the end of the Torah cycle of readings, and the beginning of the next? We do not stop reading the Torah, as it never truly “ends.” We go back to “In the beginning,” and pick up without missing a beat.
Moses and his death also teach us that he was extraordinarily ordinary. Moses was not to enter into Canaan because he, like all other human beings, had lived a life of imperfection. Yes, Moses remained beautifully loyal to G-d throughout his life, but he often questioned, doubted, and even cried out. Moses needed help, whether it be via his Midianite father-in-law or the aid of seventy elders. If we look back on Moses’ earlier life, we recall that Moses actually might have had a speech impediment. “Oh Lord, I am not a man of words…for I am slow of speech, and slow of tongue” (Exodus 4:10). Rashi seemed to believe that Moses actually had a severe impediment, such as a lisp or a stutter. There is a Midrashic tale wherein it is said that an angel had saved baby Moses from the wrath of Pharaoh by putting a hot coal in his mouth, creating impeded speech. Whatever the exact nature of Moses’ speaking ability might have been, he was clearly not presented as a gifted orator. This topic is made even more interesting due to the fact that the last sefer of the Pentateuch is “Devarim,” which translates in English to “words.” Moses has relayed G-d’s words to the people, and they have endured for generations, and will for many to come. We are also unsure of the burial site of Moses. It is widely believed that any indication of Moses’ burial place could cause pilgrims to visit and make a deity of him. Moses was a human, not a deity, and Jewish thought is very careful in this way.
“And there hath not risen a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face” (Deut. 34:10). Face-to-face or “panim el panim.” It is important to recognize the importance of these “devarim,” or words. Moses was an ordinary man who took on extraordinary tasks, and he is largely considered the greatest prophet to have ever lived. Still, just to drive the point home, he was human. How often do we hold ourselves to standards that are nearly or completely impossible to fulfill? Even more importantly, how often do we forget that we are human? By that, I mean:
What do we as human beings truly require?
In Dr. Remen’s book, she spends much time relaying to the reader anecdotes about people who have regrets about the manner in which they have lived their lives. People who felt close to death often told Dr. Remen that they had spent all of their time working, traveling for business, or climbing some sort of corporate ladder. At the end of their lives, or when faced directly with their own mortality, these people almost always wished that they had spent more time on the work of the heart and soul; cultivating relationships with family, serving others instead of currency, and the like. When reading of Moses’ death before ever entering the promised land, the immediate reaction for many people is to feel sad. Looking more deeply into this moment, we see a man who has lived a life of complete purpose. This is a man who has lived a life in service of G-d and his people. Moses still had this purpose until his last breath of life– “His eye was not dim” (Deut. 34:7). If you look into someone’s eyes, you can often see the “life,” or lack thereof. Moses, through all of the hardships he had been at the forefront of, still had the light of life in his eyes. In Genesis 12:1, G-d says to Abram, “Go forth (Lech L’cha!) from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.” The Lord literally shows Moses the promised land previously sworn unto Abraham a moment before his death. Moses was able to see the fruits of his labor, and this alone seemed to be a true blessing from G-d. What initially seems a melancholy moment of a goal not realized, when viewed through the lens of a blessing, turns into a touching story of realization and reflection on a life well-lived.
I speak a lot about legacy, and what we pass down to the future. Moses’ death, which causes us to reflect on his life, can teach us many things about our own legacies. Just as Dr. Remen’s patients wished to live more blessed and meaningful lives, so probably do all of us. Moses’ death teaches us that we can be human, and still be great. We can be human, and have an intimate relationship with G-d. We can stumble over our words, and continue to speak. We can be unsure and scared, but still lead. We can see our blessings, but we must look.
“Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad–Hear O Israel! The Lord is God, the Lord is One.”
There is one God who already exists. We have been trusted to repair and better the world, and we will not always do so perfectly. If we continue the work with devotion to righteousness, we will truly live a blessed life–a life that will permeate generations as a spark of light. What is beautiful is that we do not have to journey alone. Let us continue the work, and not desist. We will find in the living of our lives with attention to holiness a bounty of blessings.
Chazak, Chazak, V’nitkazeich–Be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another.
“Bereshit barah Elohim et haShamayim v’et ha’aretz—In the beginning G-d created the heaven and the earth” (Gen. 1:1).
Most of us are very familiar with the above words, as they are the first 7 of the 79,847 words that make up the Torah. This is also the first verse of the 5,845 verses that result in the complete Torah. We find these words in Genesis, or, Bereshit, which translates in Hebrew to “in the beginning.” The beginning of the Torah tells us of the six days during which G-d created all things of heaven and earth. G-d is referred to as “Elohim,” a plural word, not to indicate anything other than oneness, but likely to show a mighty ability to bring together all forces, poles, and things imagined. G-d is the ultimate Creator. Interestingly enough, G-d did not seem to have a blank canvas to work from. The Torah tells us: “Now the earth was unformed and void…” (Gen. 1:2). Unformed and void, or “tohu vavohu.” Out of this unformed, void, dark canvas, “G-d said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light” (Gen. 1:3). There is certainly much to unpack here, and the greatest of sages have made many attempts to find all of the minutiae hidden in these simple, yet complex and powerful words.
There are matters addressed in this script, and the thoughts and ideas surrounding it, that seem to be relevant to our contemporary lives. First, why and how was the earth “tohu vavohu”– unformed and void, or sometimes translated to “worthless and waste,” before G-d began to adorn the world with all of His majesty? Many scholars have compared “tohu vavohu” to some sort of unimaginable and indecipherable chaos that existed before it was given proper form and function. There is a parable in the Talmud told by Rabbi Eleazar that compares “tohu vavohu” to the site upon which a king has built his palace. In this story, a king has constructed his palace on a site of sewers, dunghills, and waste matter. Should someone happen to come along and say, “this palace was built upon a site of sewers, dunghills, and waste matter,” perhaps one might value the palace less (P. Hag 2:1, 47c; Gen R. 1:5). Rabbi Eleazar actually promoted the idea that we should not look too deeply into the reason why G-d created the world on a canvas of “tohu vavohu,” as perhaps people would value creation less. Rabbi Eleazar implied that we should perhaps not pry into things too deeply all the time or examine matters beyond our mind’s grasp.
While Rabbi Eleazar might have had a point, it is quite difficult to turn away from challenging questions, and simply stick our nose in the commandments and halacha. Let us look at where we are now as a society, and as a world. As the days seem to sometimes saunter on, we do not know if and when we will be able to resume or restart. Orders from one governmental body directly contrast another’s recommendations. We see a portion of the population outside at restaurants, or walking down the street, sometimes in groups that defy suggestions or mandates. Some are wearing masks covering their noses and mouths, some are wearing masks covering only their mouths, which deems them useless. Others are not donning any sort of face shield at all. Many states have “re-opened,” while others are in a seemingly unending series of nebulous “phases” that indicate when participation in certain activities will be “safe” based upon possibly arbitrary measurables. We are unsure when we will be able to physically hold our loved ones and dear friends once again. As our own Days of Awe (Yamim Noraim), Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, loom largely on the fast-approaching horizon, we do not know if we will be able to congregate in any physical fashion at all. The world as we once knew it has changed. We now live in a world that feels “tohu vavohu.” We are living in a present that feels unformed and sometimes even void. Perhaps it feels as if the newest version of our world has yet to be created. If it has, we do not seem to be in on the plan, and Rabbi Eleazar begins to feel more relevant in his commentary. The answers truly do seem to be beyond our reach, and overwhelming to consider.
During a time that feels chaotic, unformed, and void, many look to the Torah, or their respective traditions’ scriptures for answers. I had a conversation today wherein I was asked, “How do we know that G-d even exists?” I would like to introduce to you another story from the Talmud. In reference to the creation of the world–a man came to Rabbi Akiva and asked, “This world–who created it?” Rabbi Akiva replied with, “The Holy One, blessed be He.” The man asked Akiva to “Show me clear proof.” The next day when the questioning man came back, Rabbi Akiva asked him, “What are you wearing?” The man replied to Akiva, “A garment.” Akiva said, “Who made it?” After the man answered with, “A weaver,” Rabbi Akiva said, “I don’t believe you. Show me clear proof.” The man seemed to fumble, saying, “What can I show you? Don’t you know that a weaver made it?” Akiva replied, “And you, do you not know that the Holy One made His world?” Rabbi Akiva’s students, hearing Akiva’s point, still asked him, “But what is the clear proof?” in reference to the G-d’s creation of the world. Rabbi Akiva answered, “My children, even as a house proclaims its builder, a garment its weaver, or a door its carpenter, so does the world proclaim the Holy One, blessed be He, that He created it” (B. Tem. 3). This answer seems to imply that just as we know that a weaver created a garment, we know that G-d created the world. This answer seems to require quite a bit of faith. We can witness a weaver make a garment, or a carpenter build a door.
Can we witness G-d create the world?
To attempt to answer that question, I promise only one more Talmudic reference! It is written that Emperor Hadrian told Rabbi Joshua b. Chananya, “I desire to behold your G-d.” Rabbi Chananya told the Emperor that this was impossible. As the Emperor kept pleading, Chananya asked him to gaze directly at the sun, which was high in the sky of the summer solstice. Hadrian replied, “I cannot,” to which Rabbi Chananya quickly replied, “You admit that you are unable to look at the sun, which is only one of the attendants upon the Holy One, blessed be He; how much more beyond your power must it be to look at G-d Himself! (Chul. 59b et seq.) According to the Torah, G-d created the “luminaries,” which included the sun and the stars on the fourth day of creation. If human beings are unable to look at even one of these creations, why should we be able to gaze directly at G-d?
If you believe that creation is a never ending process, which can be seen in all matters of nature, I would say, maybe yes, we can witness G-d create the world.
Perhaps our specific beliefs about the nature of the Divine are not always the most important or pressing matter to consider. However you believe that the universe came to be might be a very personal experience. What we do know is that we are here; in the thick of what has been and is being created, in the here and now. In terms of Torah, I tend to agree with our Mishkan T’filah when it says, “The more we devote ourselves to it, the more it grows and gives” (p. 29). As we read the Torah, we notice that directly following the disorder of “tohu vavohu”, we read–”And God said: ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light. And G-d saw the light, that it was good…” (Gen. 1:3-4). G-d seemed to utter, with words, the world into existence. As we wade through our own unformed world, what words are we saying to ourselves and others? Are they positive or negative? Optimistic or pessimistic? If we were truly created in a Divine image, how powerful are our words? Can we create small universes with our words as G-d created our entire canvas from which to work? I believe we can.
Since we are all human, and we will be challenged with moments of discouragement, always remember that when the earth was “tohu vavohu,” G-d spoke light into existence, and saw that it was good. The light after the chaos is good. If we can speak to the unknown with a sense of wonder and excitement, perhaps our day-to-day lives can become even a bit more joyful and filled with hope.
May we all be blessed to accept as Rabbi Eleazar, have faith as Rabbi Akiva, or marvel as Rabbi Chananya. Or, if we are unsure and questioning, may we simply find a bit of comfort and hope for the good light while we navigate the “new Bereshit” that we must all make our way through.
One of the many beautiful aspects of the Torah is its ability to pull no punches, so to speak. The Torah can tell it like it is, and we see a wide range of emotions and circumstances on display in this week’s parshah, B’haalot’cha. “And it came to pass in the second year, in the second month, on the twentieth day of the month, that the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle of testimony” (Num. 10:11). Let us unpack this for a moment. The people of Israel have been at Sinai for ten months and nineteen days, and now the journey toward the Holy Land can begin. They have been gone from Egypt for over a year now. But, how did the people of Israel know that it was,indeed, the right time to set forth on this journey from Sinai toward Moab and the Promised Land? It turns out that the cloud that we just spoke of was how G-d manifested Himself as protector and guide over the Tabernacle. Numbers 9:17 tells us, “And whenever the cloud was taken up from over the Tent, then after that the children of Israel journeyed; and in the place where the cloud abode, there the children of Israel encamped” The people of Israel had G-d in cloud form telling them when they should pack up and travel, and also when it was appropriate to halt and set up camp. This is not the first time we have heard of G-d’s presence via a cloud. If we look back to Exodus 13:21, we remember, “And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to guide them…” The Torah also makes it clear that during the night, when clouds are generally not as visible, the Lord manifested as fire, perhaps a la the bush that Moses saw burning unconsumed.
The Talmud tells us of glorious clouds that guided the people of Israel in the wilderness, raising the lowlands, lowering the highlands, and even killing dangerous animals such as scorpions and snakes on the road before them (Mek, Be-shallah, Va-yehi 1; Num. R. 1:1). The Aggadic writings talk of a beam of light issuing from the cloud, perhaps like lightning, which indicated the appropriate direction in which to journey next. Do any of us wish that we could have such a physical manifestation of the Divine’s presence in our own day-to-day lives? The cloud that guided the people of Israel through the wilderness–can we find a version of this Divinity in our own experiences? Do we seek the light of the Lord from outside of ourselves, within ourselves, or both? Sometimes, we can feel as if Divinity is with us, or that G-d is communicating with us, almost as Moses–”With him [Moses] do I speak mouth to mouth” (Num. 12:8). Mouth to mouth or face to face–”peh el peh” in Hebrew. Moses was said to speak to God in the most direct manner of all of the prophets–never actually seeing an image of G-d, but having the clearest communication of all. In other times we might feel as if we do not feel G-d’s presence with us at all.
As I alluded to earlier, the Torah has a unique ability to tell it like it is. Even with a Divine cloud guiding the way, clearing the path, and turning to fire by night, the people of Israel, for lack of a more appropriate term, began to “kvetch.” The people began complaining about the food: “we have nought but this manna to look to” (Num. 11:6). The Israelites even went so far as to reflect upon their days of slavery in Egypt with longing: “We remember the fish…the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic” (Num. 11:5). Moses himself, overcome with the burden of the people and the constant complaining, began to unravel a bit in this parshah. “Wherefore hast Thou dealt ill with Thy servant? And wherefore have I not found favour in thy sight, that Thou latest the burden of all this people upon me? (Num. 11:11). Even in the holiest of times, and amidst a direct line of communication with G-d, Moses has “had it” with the people, and is questioning his prophetic role. Even the seemingly steadfast Aaron and Miriam begin to show uncharacteristic jealousy regarding Moses. After suddenly complaining about Moses’ choice of a wife, they said, “Hath the Lord indeed spoken only with Moses? Hath He not spoken with us also?” (Num. 13:2). The Midrash tells us that Moses was too meek to stand up for himself, so G-d decided to defend him. Miriam became leprous, and with Moses’ help, she was eventually cured. “El na r’fah nah lah” or, “Heal her now, O God, I beseech Thee” (Num. 12:13). As a side note, you may recognize these words from a new song we have been introduced to that we might sing in place of the Mi Shebeirach on Friday nights. “El nah r’fah nah lah l’refuah sh’leimah”–”G-d please heal her, for a complete healing.”
What to take from all of this? A direct sign of G-d’s presence and direction among the people of Israel still did not quell the very human feelings of unrest, hunger, idealization of the past, and jealousy. We see sibling rivalry, and eventually we return to Moses’ characteristic humility and caring for others, evident in his plea for Miriam’s life. Parshah B’haalot’cha feels almost like a microcosm of life itself. There are moments when we, in our own lives, feel guided along by the Divine presence, and we can remain flexible and willing to do what we feel called to do. We also face many moments of frustration, uncertainty, and even anger. There are times when we might feel G-d “peh el peh,” and moments when we just feel hungry for the earthly meat of Mitzrayim. Life can seem chaotic, troublesome, and full of trials and tribulations. At the end of B’haalot’cha, the Israelite people do make their way from Sinai and set up camp in the wilderness of Paran.
After all of the very human ordeals–the struggling with G-d (Israel), and with one another, G-d still leads the way from one place to the next, from one moment to another. We are human, and we are imperfect. It might be helpful to remember that even when we are busy being imperfect, the cloud and fire is always with us, guiding us along the way. We can miss G-d’s presence, especially if we are too busy looking down at earthly squabbles to notice. Our Mishkan T’Filah says, “Days pass, and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles…let there be moments when Your Presence, like lightning, illumines the darkness in which we walk. Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns unconsumed” (p. 53).
May we all be blessed with patience and perspective, so that we might have more beautiful moments of “peh el peh” with one another, and with our very own manifestation of the Divine.
Naso, the Torah portion for this week, comes at an extremely tumultuous and trying time in our country’s history. As we know, we are currently studying Bamidbar, or the Book of Numbers, in our yearly cycle of readings. As of right now, 100,000 people in the United States have died of COVID-19, with the numbers rising. There are currently protests of rage and anger taking place in cities across the country due to the racial atrocities that have been again amplified by the vile and senseless murder of a black man in Minneapolis at the hands of law enforcement. It seems appropriate that this week’s parshah is the longest in the Torah, consisting of 176 verses, since this week feels like it might never end in its consistent chaos. The number of human beings perished from COVID-19, and the number of people of color dead from being people of color: Too high. One is too many. The numbers are indeed scary.
When life feels overwhelming, we can look to the Torah. We might not find the answers we are looking for in the moment, but we can certainly glean Divine insight and historical parallel. In between discussion of Levitical counting, removal of unclean persons from the camp, and the gifts offered by tribal princes, we find what is perhaps the most beautiful aspect of this vast parshah. It also happens to be one of its most brief. Parshah Naso delivers to us the Birkat Kohanim, or the Priestly Blessing:
“The Lord bless thee, and keep thee; The Lord make His face to shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee; The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace” (Num. 6:24-26). In Hebrew: “Y’varech’cha Adonai v’yishm’recha. Ya-eir Adonai panav eilecha vichuneka.Yisa Adonai panav eilecha v’yaseim l’cha shalom.”
This blessing is arguably the most widely known in all of Judaism. It was used in ancient times in the Temple in Jerusalem. It is used today in Israel during the repeating of the Amidah prayer. Parents bless their children on Friday nights using these words, and the celebration of festivals in the diaspora always contain recitation of the Birkat Kohanim. While the words themselves are beautiful and rhythmic, both in English and Hebrew, what does it all mean? I would like to touch on this, and focus specifically on the final word, “shalom.” Firstly, the singular “thee” or often “you” is used in this blessing. Perhaps this singularity is due to the fact that the people of Israel, and I would argue all people, should be blessed as one. We are humankind, and can strive to attain a oneness of human experience and caring for one another. The Lord can bless “thee” with material prosperity and with good health; He can also “keep” or “protect” “thee” against illness, poverty, and a multitude of hardship. When “The Lord make His face to shine upon thee,” it is thought that God’s face is turned toward us showering us with Divine love and adoration. When the Lord is “gracious unto thee,” we can look to the word chen, or grace, which speaks to morality and interpersonal relationships. We ask that God give us and others grace so that we can live harmoniously together (Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks). When the Lord “lift up His countenance…” he is attuned to us, and caring for us. The priestly blessing ends with, “and give thee peace.” The final word is shalom. We know that “shalom” is used as a greeting, a farewell, and also to mean “peace.” Hertz’s Chumash tells us that shalom is a word that encompasses a myriad of ideals that “peace” simply cannot cover. Security, health, welfare, tranquility; all of these are contained in the word. Rabbi David Zaslow talks of shalom more appropriately translating to “wholeness” in English. When two opposite poles come together, we have shalom. This polar connection is what makes “shalom” appropriate both for hello and goodbye: opposites. Zaslow believes that “shalom” unites individuals with differing views and opinions. This grants a person the gift of another perspective, which ultimately leads to wholeness. It should also be noted that peace, shalom, or wholeness does not indicate a passivity. Without social justice, ethical behavior, and the working toward individual and societal harmony, shalom will not come to be.
The Book of Isaiah speaks of an aspirational shalom which includes all people, and even beasts, living together in wholeness. “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard lie down with the kid…In all of my sacred mount nothing evil or vile shall be done; For the land shall be filled with devotion to the Lord as water covers the sea” (Isaiah 11:6-10). The Book of Isaiah speaks of a world of complete shalom–a world where he who has been given the power of the wolf does not press his knee upon the neck of the helpless and handcuffed lamb. A world where the vile actions of predators do not quickly snuff out the lives of those simply grazing in the field. A world where evil inaction does not directly correlate to the loss of countless lives.A world where everyone can breathe. Acclaimed journalist and political analyst LZ Granderson recently wrote, “It’s intellectually dishonest to say we will return to ‘peace’…because this country has never been at peace. We’ve had moments of quiet…but never peace.” Granderson talks of how this country was built upon the backs of slaves and systemic racism. It is difficult to argue with his point, and if you feel inclined to do so, take Hillel’s advice, and “judge not your fellow man until you have been in his place” (Avot 2:5).
There exists “A time to keep silence, and a time to speak” (Eccles. 3:7). The Talmud tells us that there exist times when we are rewarded for remaining silent, and other times when we must speak up in order to be rewarded (B. Zeb 115b, En Yaakov). As Jews, inaction is not an option. We must be silent only when we are listening to those whose voices have been silenced. We must be silent only so we can learn what to say when we speak up: And speak up we must for all of our brothers and sisters who share this earth with us. We must listen to the science and the experts. We must listen to our brothers and sisters of color. We must listen, and then speak. We must behave as if we were the channel through which God were to bless the people, all people, of this earth.
Yes, it does feel like we are currently a nation at war, peoples pitted against a virus, and against one another. The Rabbis tell us, “Great is peace, for even in a time of war one should begin peace” (Perek HaShalom 1:14) Even during these times of illness, murder, and fire, we must aspire to shalom. The Lord will give thee peace. We are all Israel, and we all must be blessed. One day, “Lo yisa goi el goi cherev. V’lo yilm’du od milchamah–Nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war” (Isaiah 2:4).
May all those who feel unsafe be blessed with the Lord’s keeping. May all those whose voices remain in the shadows be blessed with the Lord’s light upon your face. May the Lord turn to those who feel that the Lord has turned from them. And may the Lord grant us “shalom”–wholeness. The work begins now.
As we celebrate the pilgrimage festival of Shavuot this week, one of our traditions is to engage in the reading of The Book of Ruth. While a connection to Shavuot is not necessarily explicit in the text, our tradition gives many explanations as to why we read this particular book on Shavuot. The story is set during the barley harvest time, and Ruth is a direct descendant of King David, who is reported to have died on Shavuot. According to Rabbi Ze’era of the Talmud, The Book of Ruth does not give us any information regarding what is clean or unclean, or what is prohibited or permitted. Rabbi Ze’era claims that the Book of Ruth was written simply in order to teach us that there is great reward for those who engage in acts of kindness (Ruth R. 2.14). We see three major characters in this story; Ruth, Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi, and Naomi’s kinsman Boaz. What we read in this book is a remarkable story of two strong women, a rarity in many biblical writings, making their own way in a patriarchal and unkind society. It is said that the Book of Ruth took place during the time of judges. “And it came to pass (vayehi) in the days when the judges judged” (Ruth 1:1). According to Rabbi Eleazar, wherever the word “vayehi” occurs, woe lingers. We have much to learn from Ruth and Naomi’s behavior amidst trying times.
To give a brief summary of the story, Naomi and her husband Elimelech are living during these difficult times with their two sons in Bethlehem. Famine was rampant, so the family was forced to travel to Moab in search of greener pastures. While in Moab, Naomi and Elimelech’s two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, both marry Moabite women. Orpah and Ruth become part of the family through marriage. Very soon into the story all of the men die, and Naomi is left with her two daughters-in-law in the foreign Moabite land. Naomi decides to return to the land of Bethlehem, and tells her daughters by marriage that they should go back to where they came from. “Turn back, each of you to her mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me!” (Ruth 1:8). Eventually Orpah decides to heed Naomi’s words, and it is said that she becomes an ancestor of the famous giant Philistine, Goliath. Ruth, however, shows an incredible amount of loyalty to her mother-in-law. Ruth famously says, “Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16). Let’s circle back to that incredible display of loyalty in a moment. Eventually, Naomi and Ruth re-enter Israelite land wherein Ruth is gleaning in the field of Boaz. Boaz, who ends up being a kinsman of Naomi, takes a liking to Ruth, and the two eventually become married. Boaz is called the “redeemer” of the family of Naomi. Ruth and Boaz have a son named Obed, who becomes a direct descendant of King David.
Let us focus for a moment on Ruth’s incredible personal journey. When she proclaims her loyalty to Naomi, remember she says that, “your God [shall become] my God.” Ruth is essentially telling us that she wishes to convert to Judaism! Rabbi Ze’er tells us of the “chesed” or kindness that is displayed in this book. Isn’t it interesting to find that an extreme act of loyalty between two strong women directly leads to the creation of the messianic line of King David? So often in Judaism, there exists the notion that conversion and intermarriage is something to look down upon, or that marrying a non-Jew is akin to slowly doing away with Judaism itself. The Book of Ruth appears to operate in stark contrast to this line of thinking. Ruth is an honorable and strong person who happens to be a non-Jewish woman. She decided of her own accord to become a Jewish woman, eventually marries a Jewish man, and is seemingly accepted by society. There is much to learn about our contemporary views from Ruth’s story. Ruth’s Judaism is present in her fierce loyalty and kindness to Naomi, and her devotion to God. What could be more Jewish than supporting one’s loved one during a time of strife? The Jews have always become stronger in the face of adversity, and Ruth displays this resiliency in spades. While Naomi is in a state of despair after the loss of so many of her family members, Ruth stays by her side, and both women appear to lift one another up. Naomi is so down when she returns to Bethlehem that she requests to be called “Mara,” meaning “bitterness” as opposed to her original name. Dr. Yael Shemesh of Bar-Ilan University brings up an interesting linguistic connection in the text. When Naomi is telling her daughters-in-law to leave her side, it is said, “But Ruth clung to her” (Ruth 1:14). The word for cling, “davak,” is reminiscent of a verse in Genesis: “Hence a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). As opposed to a man leaving his parents, clinging to his wife, and becoming one flesh, we see similar language to describe two women, a mother and daughter, forming a bond of beautiful sisterhood. Their connection is strong and profoundly meaningful. In case you were still wondering about the gravity of Ruth’s presence and impact on not only Naomi, but the people of Israel, in 4:11, the people and elders of Israel say of Ruth, “May the Lord make the woman is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, both of whom built up the house of Israel!” Ruth, a convert to Judaism, is compared to the matriarchs Rachel and Leah by Jewish elders. This is an important thought to keep in mind before looking sideways at conversion or intermarriage.
While it would be easy to call the Book of Ruth a simple story about loss and redemption with two strong female protagonists, it would not be very Jewish of us to omit addressing some glaring concerns. We live in a contemporary world in the United States wherein women are not treated as equals to men. Astonishingly, women still only make 81 cents for every dollar that a man earns for performing the exact same job. While the number of women in CEO positions at Fortune 500 companies is at its highest rate in history, that number is still only 33. Our society still has quite a long way to go in many areas before we can consider ourselves truly equal. The same patriarchy existed in the time of Naomi and Ruth. Boaz, Naomi’s kinsman in Bethlehem, is termed “the redeemer” of Naomi’s family. Many people also find it hard to reconcile the fact that Naomi essentially tells Ruth to give herself to Boaz physically in order for them to be restored. Naomi tells Ruth, “So bathe, anoint yourself, dress up, and go down to the threshing floor…When he lies down note the place where he lies down, and go over and uncover his feet and lie down. He will tell you what you are to do” (Ruth 3:3-4). While the methods of their rise in Bethlehem might be less-than-desirable, were these strong women working within the confines of the society that they knew was dominant? I believe it is important that we take note of the fact that Ruth and Naomi were living in a male-dominated society, and they operated knowing just that. Boaz does eventually tell Ruth, “I will do in your behalf whatever you ask…” (Ruth 3:11). Toward the end of The Book of Ruth, a rare biblical dialogue of a woman’s worth being equal to or greater than a man’s occurs. The women of Bethlehem said to Naomi in reference to her new grandson, Ruth’s child, “He will renew your life and sustain your old age; for he is born of your daughter-in-law, who loves you and is better to you than seven sons” (Ruth 4:15). Ruth is better to Naomi than seven sons. These are no miniscule words of praise for Ruth, whose name might mean “the one who fills to overflowing.”
The Book of Ruth, while told through the lens of a highly patriarchal society, does have much to celebrate. Naomi and Ruth share trials and tribulations of love, loss, uncertainty, journey, hunger, and ultimately great happiness and redemption. Perhaps Boaz was the male vessel that these strong women happened to use in order to fulfill their higher purpose. In the modern world, I will urge my own daughter, who is named for Naomi, to strive for the greatest heights no matter what society tells her she should do. Sometimes we work with where we are and what is in front of us, and as Jews, we know that the work is in progress, but not yet complete. This week, as we celebrate the revelation at Mount Sinai during Shavuot, I hope we can take some time to remember Ruth and Naomi. These two women exemplified strength, courage, and sisterhood in the face of the unknown, perhaps equivalent to Abram when he was told “Lech Lecha” (go forth) by God in the Book of Genesis.
May our own country be blessed with a revelation wherein the powers that be correct the wrongs of generations. A dollar must become a dollar, no matter the gender. A marriage is a marriage, no matter the faiths, or even the genders. Flesh can cling to any flesh. Love is love, and loyalty is loyalty.
May we all be blessed as the protagonists of our own stories, and the redeemers of our own souls. May we find within us the kindness or “chesed” which Ruth showed to Naomi; that which mirrors the covenant between God and the people of Israel that was forged at Mount Sinai.