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7 Sivan 5759
This morning I’d like to comment on a few elements of today’s parasha and say a few words about the Book Of Ruth — not to necessarily enlighten you as to the meaning of the text — I leave that for others more scholarly — but to share with you how they resonated with the experience of the seven of us during our year and a half of study that brought us to this day. I’ll also be sharing some thoughts about why we chose Shavuot as a particularly appropriate day for us to be reading from the Torah for the first time.
I will begin with a few aspects of the parasha [Torah reading for Shavuot Second Day in Diaspora: Deuteronomy 14:22 – 16:17 & Numbers 28:26-31]. It begins with the commandment to tithe on a yearly basis, so as to provide for the needy among us, to take care of the Levites, to understand that our year’s bounty is not just a result of our great skill but also of God’s goodness, and to realize that our possessions are merely possessions- whose enjoyment comes from sharing them with others. The text gets very prescriptive regarding exactly how much of our harvest and livestock to set aside for tithing — and alternatives if we live too far away from the Temple — and how to calculate proportionate increases every three years if we are fortunate to see our bounty increase. It then goes on to describe the end of the seventh year, at which time we are commanded to make a release. We are told that at this time we are to release our neighbors and brethren from any debts they may owe us due to their own misfortunes — and that we are not to be hardhearted or stingy to those that need us if they happen to ask us for a loan in year six — knowing that the next year all will be forgiven. We are also told that in the seventh year we are to give the land a rest- it is not to be sown- and finally, that we are to release any slaves we are holding. During this time, if one was unsuccessful on their own plot of land or met misfortune — they could bond themselves to another- and work as their slave, so to speak. However, at the end of the seventh year, the creditor is told here that not only must the debt be released — but we are also to give him the provisions needed to be successful independently — “thou shall furnish him liberally out of thy flock, and out of thy threshing floor, and out of thy winepress.” And we must do this so as not to forget that we were once slaves in Egypt — but were then redeemed. It goes on to say that if the slave or his woman chooses not to leave- they are to be hammered to the doorpost through the ear — and remain bondsmen forever. The decision to choose slavery over independence is thus so abhorrent — it is discouraged with torture.
Parallels with our group? Well, we feel strongly that our good fortune in being able to study together — and to at long last having at least the beginning of the skills needed to participate fully in this community — brings with it an obligation to share, or tithe. Thus our decision to purchase this new siddur. We were also intrigued by the unequivocal value on the importance of remembering we were once slaves in Egypt and to therefore release those that are beholden to us, to give them what they need to succeed, and to torture them if they should choose bondage over freedom. We have a heightened consciousness as women — and particularly as women who for various reasons did not have the opportunity to become learned in Judaism as young girls — of the critical importance of independence — and to have enough knowledge to be able to function independently as Jewish women. That dependence on others, no matter how caring and magnanimous those others may be, is not as satisfying as being full fledged independent members of this Jewish community. As Judy put it so nicely when we discussed this, “it’s time for us to move out of the humming section.” And as in this parasha, when the creditor is commanded to give the bondsman the tools needed to be successful — we feel that we were also given those tools — blessed with good minds, very supportive families, and the context of a congregation that respects, encourages and indeed welcomes in its egalitarian yet traditional way, all of us to do reach and grow and do as much or as little as each of us ready for to fully participate. For some of us it has been precisely that aspect of the BEKI culture that drew us in here and made us want to learn more. We have always felt the encouragement and support of the congregation to grow and learn and participate.
The parasha goes on to describe the three pilgrimage festivals and the obligations of each: Passover, where we eat unleavened bread for seven days; the Feast of Weeks, or Shavuot, seven weeks later, the season of the giving of the Torah; and Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles which ends with Simhat Torah, when the yearly reading of the Torah is completed and begun again.
Parallels for us? I’d like to comment briefly on Shavuot and why we chose this day to come before you. Whereas on Passover there is a prescription with regards to how much we are told to give as an offering, on Shavuot, this is one of the few times — maybe the only — where one is asked to give a free will offering, as much or as little as one is able. It was much like this in our group. We came from varying levels of readiness for this experience. Two of us did not know how to read Hebrew at all when we started. The rest of us varied widely in how well we could read and how much Judaic education we had received. There were moments, especially at the beginning, when a few of us wanted to turn back, thinking that this was going to be too hard. You’ll recall that Naomi told Ruth to turn back and not take on Judaism, that it would be too hard. However, we established fairly early on that each of us was to take on as much or as little as we were comfortable with. The expectation was for each of us to only take on what we could, which meant more for some, less for others. You’ll notice that I’m the one that gets to speak the most English today! In other words, a free will offering.
The spirit of Shavuot is also one of renewal of commitment, the taking on of the Torah. It was in that spirit that we’ve carried on and come before you today. Additionally, we read in the notes for the text that in many congregations, Shavuot is the time when children are initiated into the formal study of Jewish religion and Hebrew language. Some temples give children their first siddur [prayer book] at this time. The parallel here speaks for itself. You’ll note also that today’s parasha resounds with the number seven – the seventh year is the sabbatical year- the seven days of Passover, the seven weeks until the Feast of weeks, etc. At some point during this last year I looked around the table and realized- “We are seven women — one teacher and six students.” Coincidence?
Let me move on to The Book of Ruth. I’d like to make some remarks about the story that resonate with us, and also consider why this is read on Shavuot. Here is a story of friendship and loyalty between women on one level, but also about the taking on of Judaism on another. When Naomi decides to return to Bethlehem, having learned that the famine was over, she tells her Moabite daughters-in-law to return to their own people. She has nothing to offer them, since she can no longer bear sons who could marry them and take care of them. And an unwed woman at that time was at great risk. Orpah, although tearful, turns back. Naomi says, “See, your sister-in-law has returned to her people and her gods. Go follow your sister-in-law.” But Ruth perseveres: “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.”
Naomi tried to dissuade her not only because of the obvious dangers of being a widow in a strange land, but because of the challenge and difficulty of accepting monotheism and the mitzvot that follow. However, Ruth willingly and courageously takes this on, and makes this commitment. It is perhaps because of this spirit of commitment, and taking on of the religion, that the reading of Ruth is done at Shavuot. And we have felt this sense of commitment and renewal among us — and we have considered turning back — and we have continued on in the context of the relationship between us which helped sustain us.
I need to say a few words about that. Many of you know that my profession is education. One of the things I’ve come to know profoundly in my work is that learning — true, life changing, meaningful learning — happens in the context of supportive relationships. It is through the relationship with Naomi that Ruth takes on the formidable challenge of accepting monotheism into her life. In classrooms where there are supportive and positive relationships between teachers and students, between students and students, and in schools where there are good relationships among the adults, optimal learning takes place. People feel safe enough to take the risks necessary for learning. And so it has been in the context of the relationship among us that we have found the courage to wrestle with the learning we needed to do. We lead very busy and complex lives with many responsibilities. We are all raising children. We have jobs, husbands, and households. And during this time that we’ve studied together we’ve faced illness, loss, stress, a new baby, and have been buoyed always by the security and comfort of the group, which in turn has been buoyed by very supportive husbands and families, and has occurred in the context of an encouraging and accepting congregation.
It is customary at this time for the bar and bat mitzvah boys and girls to mention that this is just the beginning of a journey. And so it is with us. I know I speak for all of us when I say that we’ve been truly humbled by how much there is to learn. This is also the time when the kids give all their thank yous. We’d like to thank our teacher Amy Pincus, for her guidance, patience and confidence in us. We’d like to thank Tanina Rostain, who, like Ruth, was relentless in her determination that we should go forward and that we could do this. We’d like to thank our daughters for inspiring us, either by their example in the case of Shoshana, Jessie, Liz and Johanna, or by their unspoken message to us that they are depending on us to inspire them as they grow into Jewish women, as in the case of Ariel, Mila, Rachel, Liora and Sarah. Thanks to Jake, Max, Tani, Aaron, Joseph and Sam for their participation today, and to Steven Pincus for sharing Amy with us on countless Sunday mornings. Thanks also to Steve, Richard, Lenny, Dominic, John and Don for their constant support and their taking on of the Spring Fling on our behalf, at which we hope to see you all dancing tonight. Again we want to thank the congregation, who along with Rabbi Tilsen provided a welcoming and encouraging community for us to give our freewill offering of study and participation. I’d like to end by thanking my mother-in-law Ruth, who passed away just three weeks ago. She taught me many lessons about loyalty and love.