Shavuot and Choice
Jul 10th 2014

The gift of Torah, which we re-enact and celebrate on Shavuot, is linked by custom to the scroll of Ruth.

Her story is associated with Shavuot for three reasons:

  • The narrative is set at the time of the spring harvest which took place in late May/early June.
  • A major theme of the narrative is ẖesed by and for Ruth. Loving-kindness is understood as the essential value of Torah and a means for personal and national transformation.
  • The book tells of Ruth’s acceptance of the God of the Israelite people as her God and the nation of Israel as her own. Her personal act reflects the national acceptance of Torah by the Jewish people.

Ruth appears to make a sudden decision, similar to Abraham’s response to God’s call in Genesis. In contrast, the rabbis of the Talmud portray Avraham as gradually becoming more aware of the singularity of the Divine.  David Brooks, the columnist for the NY Times, describes this as the difference between the Summoned Life and the Well-planned Life.

These two approaches reflect our own experiences of moving to major insights and decisions. Where are we on our life path and where we might go? Have you been called to see the world in a startlingly different way? Or have you been part of a process of a gradual unfolding, one that takes time to descern?

Juan had begun a process to become a monk when his grandfather recalled men who gathering in darkened corners “put towels on their heads and read from strange books that they never showed to anyone.” A few years later, Juan travelled from Columbia to Israel. “From the very first moment I felt a deep connection…to the language, the food, the religion...I felt a sense of missed opportunity, and anger at my family. For 500 years their ancestors had preserved Jewish tradition, and then in the last generation they had broken with it. I felt that I needed to fix things, to make a tikkun, and to convert.” Juan Mejia was ordained as a rabbi in the same class as our Rav Adam.

In Suddenly Jewish, Barbara Kessel asks, “What is it like to find out you are not who you thought you were?” Responses can range from rejection to embrace. Others take time to discern a path. While not everyone becomes a rabbi, many who come through the doors of a synagogue do decide to explore Judaism as an adult. Some are

reciting kaddish. Others are in a relationship with a non-Jewish partner, considering conversion. As the non-Jewish partner grows, the Jewish partner also develops. Newly married couples use this time to explore what kind of a Jewish home they want to build. Parents of young children decide that they want something more substantive for their kids. University students often track away from the Jewish community or religious belief, but others look to sources of Jewish life to strengthen their identities and observance.

Some stories from Europe point to the challenge. Abe Foxman, the International Director of the Anti-Defamation League, was reclaimed from his Polish nanny who hid him successfully during the Holocaust. “I wore a crucifix. I went to church regularly…The first time my father took me to synagogue…I passed a church. I crossed myself, I greeted the priest, I kissed his hand, and my father understood…Little by little, he took off my cross and replaced it with tzitzis ‘fringes’.

I used to say prayers in Latin; he taught me to pray in Hebrew…Becoming Jewish was a growing process. My parents had wisdom beyond the normal. If my parents had perished, I would have been raised to be a priest. I'm convinced there are thousands of Jews who don't know they are Jewish, especially in Poland…There were more Jewish children at risk [there] and therefore there were more opportunities to save them.”

Last year, I discovered Cholent, a group formed in Krakow for young people who come from mixed families in which a parent’s Jewish background was hidden. Cholent is the Sabbath stew that is a mixture of long-simmering ingredients. While visiting Budapest, I became aware of the story of Csanad Szegedi, a rising star in the far-right Jobbik Party, notorious for his provocative comments about Jews. Then there was a revelation that he was Jewish. He was expelled from the Party. Adrift, he began to explore his Jewish heritage.

Paul Goldreich, a London psycho-analyst, has worked with many people adjusting to the recovery of one’s heritage. He thinks that people who come back to Judaism do so because “they have a reservoir of memory” that enables them to pick up on clues. I was interviewed about this for a CBC documentary, “The Mystery of San Nicandro”, which explores the search by southern Italians for long-forgotten Jewish origins. Rabbi Yehudah Halevi (Spain, 1075 – 1141) believed that there is an essential spark of Jewishness, hard-wired into the descendants of Avraham and Sarah. In

contrast, Rambam (Maimonides, Spain and Africa, 1138-1204) contended that Jewish identity is determined through education, experience and exercise. It is only real when lived.

On Shavuot, we are reminded that even if we are called by God, we must decide whether to respond, as did the people of Israel (“We shall act and listen”) or Ruth (“Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God”).  In some way, God is always calling to each one of us, asking “Where are you?” For some, it is not a question we want to face. Divorce, death or disaster is something that we would rather not confront. Still, life happens and we are sent in a new direction. Some people are like Ruth—suddenly aware, the call is clear. Others struggle to discern direction. We are all pilgrims, in constant motion, seeking and searching. On Shavuot and during the summer with its opportunities to read and reflect, give some thought to where you are and where you want to be.

Resources and Sources