Shabbat Erev Shavuout 2016 - 5776

Post date: Jun 9, 2016 3:36:12 PM

Erev Shavuot 2016 - 5776

Joseph DeCoursey

Who am I—a convert who can barely read Hebrew with no formal Jewish education—to write a d’rash for Shavuot?

Mi anochi? Moses asked God that same question at Mount Horeb. Many years later, at Mount Sinai, God gave us the Ten Commandments. The revelation at Sinai is the basis for the Shavuot holiday we celebrate this weekend. We read about the revelation in parashat Yitro, named after Moses’s father-in-law. The climax of the story — God’s recitation of the Ten Commandments — does not occur until the end of the parsha. The beginning of the parsha tells the story of Yitro’s meeting with Moses and the advice Yitro gave to Moses to establish a judicial system rather than hearing all cases and controversies himself. Yitro, like Ruth, was a convert.

Shavuot is sometimes called the converts holiday and there are a number of reasons for this, the most common being that we read about Ruth, the most celebrated convert in the Tanakh, during Shavuot. Another reason given is that Shavuot celebrates the conversion of the entire Hebrew people at Mount Sinai when they agreed to accept the covenant. The second reason is unsatisfactory to me because I don’t see the conversion at Sinai to be one of choice but rather one of coercion. The Midrash (Shabbat 88a) states that God held the mountain over the heads of the people and because of this I believe they converted more out of fear and awe than conscious choice. The relationship between God and the Hebrews at Sinai is more like a parent and child than that of two equals negotiating a contract. A common parenting tactic used in my house involves the forced choice - e.g., if you don’t eat your vegetables, you won’t get to eat dessert. My kids would never create those terms on their own. They are forced to agree because of parental authority. God didn’t withhold dessert from the Jews but he did threaten to bury them under a mountain in the desert unless they accepted the Torah. It was an offer that they could not refuse. Their answer was naaseh v’nishma - “we will do and we will hear.” In other words, we will follow your law and then try to understand it later. In modern contract law, there is no question that this contract would be void. One of the parties was coerced and that same party didn’t even understand the terms of the contract when they accepted it. God giving the Torah to the Jews is nevertheless an act of love, perhaps “tough love,” but love nonetheless.

This leaves the Ruth story as the more compelling narrative for me as to why Shavuot is known as a converts’ holiday. But why do we read the book of Ruth on Shavuot? What is the connection between Ruth and the holiday? I don’t find the commonly cited reasons compelling. One reason given is that the story occurs during the harvest season, at the same time as the holiday. When the Temple stood, people would bring grain offerings there. (In modern times, we bring cheesecake to synagogue. If nothing else, food remains central to Jewish celebration.) Ruth’s conversion and trip to Bethlehem occurred around the time of Shavuot and her conversion is considered analogous to the conversion of Jews at Sinai. But I don’t find the two conversions analogous because Ruth’s conversion was freely chosen and the one at Sinai coerced. Another reason given is that King David, Ruth’s great-grandson, died on Shavuot. That reason doesn’t seem meaningful enough to me. What is the connection between Ruth and the ​Revelation?

Some converts refer to themselves as “Jews by Choice” and I think the concept of choice provides a way to connect Ruth’s story to the ​Revelation. The story has a number of examples of good people making significant moral choices and giving other good people the power to choose. Ruth’s conversion occurs in the first chapter of the Book of Ruth following the death of Elimelech and his sons. Ruth and Orpah offer to return with their mother-in-law Naomi to Bethlehem. Naomi gives them the option—the choice—of remaining in Moab, noting practically the unlikelihood that she will ever bear sons that will allow Ruth and Orpah to perform yibbum (levirate marriage). Orpah leaves but Ruth clings to Naomi and promises her that “wherever you go, I will go, and wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people and your God my God.”

Ruth’s promise is interpreted as an act of chesed, loving kindness, which it certainly is, not only to Naomi but to the memory of Ruth’s dead husband. I think there is an element of pragmatism in her decision as well. Ruth, a Moabite, had thrown in with a family of Jews and I would think that she probably didn’t have much of a future in Moab. Naomi’s offer to Ruth could be considered a “forced choice” like that offered to the Jews at Sinai but Orpah’s willingness to remain in Moab suggests that Ruth’s choice was a completely voluntary act motivated ​only by chesed. The most common translation for chesed that we see today is “loving kindness” but chesed can also mean “loyalty” and it’s Ruth’s loyalty to her new Jewish family that brings out her greatness.

Ruth and Naomi arrive in Bethlehem during harvest season. Ruth meets Boaz, who treats her with kindness after hearing about all that she did for Naomi. Although she is from Moab, he doesn’t judge her because of it. Ruth tells Naomi about her meeting with Boaz. Naomi devises a plan for Ruth to seduce Boaz, become his wife, and redeem Elimelech’s estate perhaps through a levirate marriage. Naomi’s plan is foolish. She tells Ruth to bathe, dress in fine clothes, and wait until Boaz falls asleep after drinking too much. She tells Ruth to uncover Boaz’s “feet” and let nature take its course. One would not expect a future king to arise from such circumstances but the Bible is full of heroes who arose from humble beginnings. Ruth herself was a descendant of the incestuous union between Lot and his eldest daughter.

Boaz’s genealogy has equally scandalous beginnings and the author of the Book of Ruth clearly points the reader to this by including Boaz’s lineage at the end of the story. Boaz’s lineage begins with Perez, who was the son of Tamar and Judah. Like Lot’s daughter and later, Ruth, Tamar engaged in a deception to become pregnant. Like Ruth, her deception was for the purpose of yibbum.

After hearing Naomi’s plan, Ruth agrees, stating “all that you say to me I will do.” Her words echo the promise made by the Jews at Sinai: “all that God says we will do.” It seems out of character for Ruth. Why would she engage in such a deception? Nevertheless, she prepares herself, waits until Boaz is drunk, and sneaks into his threshing room. Boaz falls asleep. She uncovers his feet. He awakens. Naomi had instructed Ruth at that point to wait for Boaz to tell her what to do but Ruth doesn’t. She takes control of the situation, reveals herself to Boaz, and appears to ask him to marry her. She doesn’t seduce him or take advantage of his inebriated state. Unlike Tamar, she gives Boaz a choice, despite the risk of rejection. Boaz responds favorably, noting that Ruth’s actions toward him were an even greater kindness than that she showed Naomi. They do not consummate their relationship but instead later engage in a legal proceeding to confirm that their marriage can proceed. The legal niceties out of the way, they marry and, as they say, live happily ever after.

Tamar and Lot’s daughter carried out their deceptive seductions to the end​, never revealing themselves at the time of the act. Tamar, for her part, did offer a choice to Judah but it occurred months later when she was about to be executed for adultery. Tamar had kept Judah’s cloak, staff, and signet ring as collateral on the price she charged him for sleeping with him (a goat for those of you interested in such things). She brought those items with her on her way to her execution. She could have used the items to save herself by presenting them to another elder. Instead she presented them to Judah and asked if he recognized the items. There was great risk in asking Judah this. He could have lied and denied recognition of the items to hide his own shame; Tamar’s execution would have proceeded as a result. Instead, Judah admitted ownership of the items, thereby admitting he was the father of Tamar’s child. Tamar was saved.

Choices are empowering. By offering a choice to someone, even a false choice, we affirm their humanity because humans do not respond solely to instinct but have the capacity to decide things for themselves. They have free will. Free will makes us uniquely human and without it our actions would lack any moral significance. By offering the choice of marriage to Boaz rather than completing the seduction as planned by Naomi, Ruth actually made herself more attractive to Boaz, who was a “man of valor.” She recognized and respected his humanity by offering him a choice. There is risk in offering a choice but the risk is what makes the choice significant.

The choice offered by God to the Jews at Sinai may have been a forced one but it was a necessary one. Acceptance of the Torah was a condition precedent of the entire relationship between God and humanity. If humans were to be made in God’s image and have free will then something would have to exist to provide some semblance of right and wrong. Otherwise, there would be a chaotic world in which humans made decisions based on their preferences rather than a clear standard of moral behavior. There can be no tikkun olam if there is no standard of what the world should be.

Ruth’s story is about the greatness that can come from the moral application of free will. Naomi offered her daughters-in-law the option to return to Moab. Ruth chose to support her widowed mother-in-law and chose to be Jewish. Boaz, decided to show kindness to Ruth the Moabite, even though Moabites were traditionally enemies of the Jewish people. Ruth stopped an immoral deception and empowered Boaz with the chance to choose his own destiny. From these choices came the redemption of their ancestors and the greatest kings in Jewish history.

When Moses asked God mi anochi, God tells Moses not to worry, ki eheyeh imach - “I will be with you.” God is with all of us. We were made in God’s image with the ability to choose. With that ability, we all have the power, no matter our circumstances, to perfect the world by freely making moral choices that benefit our neighbors and ourselves.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Shavuot!

Joseph DeCoursey is a founding member of Ohel Avraham and an attorney in private practice in Rochester, NY.