Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Another Shavuot Article


Shavuot II-5778 

Rabbi David Walk 


One Shavuot in the late 90's Rabbi Chaim Halevi Brovender gave a three-part lecture on Megillat Rut. His point was that the true hero of the tale was Naomi. At that point in time, I was making the announcements at the Yeshiva. So, I announced that the final installment of the shiur on Megillat Naomi would be later that afternoon. He found it annoying. The truth is that I never really understood his point until I heard him speak again on this topic this year, two decades later. 

BTW this epiphany has helped me to understand another conundrum which has been bothering me. The final verse of Psalm 19 is very famous, 'May the sayings of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable before You, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.' The two names for God, tzuri and go'ali, seem to contradict each other. God as the Rock is the immoveable object, the perfectly stable foundation for all Creation. On the other hand, the name Redeemer implies the One who changes things for the better. Redemption is about a revolution towards fulfillment. So, in the same verse, we refer to God as both unchanging and changing. It's enough to cross a rabbi's eyes. Before we work on that problem we have to go back to Megillat Rut. 

In this megilla, a curious thing happens. We have some trouble separating Naomi from Rut. At the end of chapter 1, they both arrive back in Beit Lechem, but it appears that the crowd only notices Naomi. The women ask 'Can this be Naomi?' Didn't they notice Rut the beautiful young stranger? Even more remarkable is the confusion in chapter 4, when the baby is born, Naomi takes the baby and apparently nurses him. Then all the women proclaim, 'A son is born to Naomi!' This is weird. How must Rut feel about this? I think that she felt fine, because in some way Rut has merged with Naomi. They have become interchangeable parts. Two entities have formed one identity. When did this happen? What happened to the original Rut? 

To understand this phenomenon, we must go back to chapter one. Naomi tells the two daughters in law that they will be better off remaining in Moav. Orpah heeds this solid advice, but Rut feels a growing attachment to Naomi and all she stands for.  This brings us to the famous declaration of Rut: Do not urge me to leave you to return to who I was before. For wherever you go, I will go. Wherever you lodge, I will lodge. Your people are my people; your God is my God. Where you die, I will die and there be buried. I swear to God that only death will part us (1:16-17). This is a commitment to the Jewish people, this is a commitment to God, but mostly this is a commitment to Naomi. At that moment she is resolved to emulate and even become Naomi. She is resolved to leave her former self behind and exchange it for the Naomi model. 

There's a scene from the second Jurassic park movie which I can't separate from this concept. The nephew of the founder of Jurassic Park has told the scientist played by Jeff Goldblum that he won't repeat the mistakes of his uncle, and therefore his plans are safe. Goldblum presciently scoffs. Later in the film when chaos strikes San Diego, California because a T-Rex got loose, there's a scene when the shocked nephew is told by a creepy Jeff Goldblum, 'Now you've become your uncle!' Most of us have such moments in our lives. The first time I went around the house turning off lights in rooms without inhabitants, Jeff Goldblum's creepy voice went off in my brain, 'Now you've become your father!' 

For most of us this scenario isn't planned. We are just apples which haven't fallen very far from the tree. But in the case of Rut, this goal has become her raison d'etre. She yearns to be everything which Naomi stands for. And Naomi stands for the continuity of the Jewish people. Naomi stands for kindness and tradition and community and family and Torah values. Rut wants to be transformed into that persona. 

There's another oddity in the megilla. That word geula, meaning redeemer or redemption, just keeps getting repeated. In the first 8 verses of chapter 4, the word in its various forms appears 14 times. What's the point? Clearly, this experience and process is for the purpose of redeeming Rut in every sense of the term. She is changing from a Moabite to an Israelite, from a maiden to a mother, from an orphan to a daughter. This transformation from outsider to respected member of the community, from cocoon to butterfly is a fulfillment of her commitment to be like Naomi. 

Redemption is a revolution in one's status, from slave to freeman, from sinner to saint, from stranger to colleague. However, according to Judaism, this revolution is in the context of a return to an age-old promise. This promise is the Covenant of Abraham; this promise is the Torah of Sinai. Now, we can understand the last verse of Psalm 19. God can be the revolution and the steadfast foundation, because the revolution brings us back to the original, permanent deal made by God with our ancestors. 

Every Shavuot we reenact that covenantal event at Sinai, because we want to live up to its principles. Every Shavuot we recommit to that deal made by our revered forebears. We try to become them, so we read Megillat Rut to see how it's done.   

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Walk Article-Shavuot



Rabbi David Walk 


Jews love 'Nu?' because of our obsession with questions. Our Talmud has more words for 'question' than the Inuit (formerly Eskimos) have for 'snow'. South Africans love 'gnu' or wildebeast (not to be confused with vilde chaya), because they're such a tourist favorite. But everyone loves 'new'. We all love new things. They're fresh and exciting; something to really look forward to receiving. New things even smell cool. New Car Smell is one of the most popular car freshener fragrances. So, it's worth exploring why Shavuot is the only occasion of the Jewish calendar with a 'new' offering. 

When Shavuot is first described, the verse informs us, 'You must count until the day after seven weeks, the fiftieth day, and then bring a new meal offering to God (Vayikra 23:16).' And this idea is repeated when the Torah lists all the communal sacrifices of the year, 'On the day of the first fruits (yom habikurim) you shall offer a new meal offering, on the Feast of Weeks (Bamidbar 28:26).' What is 'new' about this offering or this event? The most literal interpretation is actually a legal point. There is a prohibition of using newly harvested grain until the omer offering is brought on the second day of Pesach. That's the rule for all grains, everywhere, except for wheat in the Holy Temple. The 'new' in our Shavuot offering is the wheat. No new wheat can be used in the Temple before this offering is brought, not in offerings or the shew bread (lechem hapanim). But why not? Many rabbis suggest that in the Temple only the best produce can be used, and only wheat reaped at Shavuot time is sufficiently ripe for Temple use. 

However, the term 'new' appears twice, so, many authorities believe that there's another idea lurking in this scenario. Remember, the verse emphasizes that this holiday comes at the end of a 49-day count or after seven weeks. Therefore, many believe that this helps to explain why we're counting in the first place. We're enumerating these days out of excitement over the anticipated rendezvous with God at the foot of Mt. Sinai. It's all a sign of our great enthusiasm for receiving God's law. This contrasts with the view I espoused a few weeks ago when I explained that counting the days and weeks are for personal improvement. But, what can you do, we rabbis are a fickle lot. 

With this in mind, every year during the counting of the omer, we should be building excitement for a renewal of our covenant with God. It's l'havdil like loving couples who ceremoniously renew their wedding vows. What does this entail? How should we prepare? 

Rav Yehudah Amital, late Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat har Etziyon, gave a wondrous dual answer in 1997. Rav Amital began by asking why the story of Yitro coming to greet Moshe precedes the story of the epiphany. This is in spite of the fact that many authorities believe that Yitro's appearance came after the giving of the Torah. The great Rosh Yeshiva gave two answers. First, Yitro teaches us that the acceptance of Torah is, by its nature, voluntary like that of Yitro. All the stories about coercion at Mt. Sinai must be understood as metaphoric. The true sentiment of the Jews is contained in the magnificent proclamation, 'We will do and we will understand (na'aseh v'nishmaShmot 24:7).' Secondly, Yitro not only taught that Torah should be accepted voluntarily, but by explaining to Moshe how to organize an efficient court system, he demonstrated that there is 'morality, a basic system of right and wrong, even before the giving of formal commandments.' Yitro presented the concept that Torah laws must be applied in a fair and reasonable manner, 'because we have a basic human urge to do these things since we think...they are the RIGHT thing to do.' We must approach Shavuot with an enthusiasm for reaccepting Torah freely for it embodies the ethics and morality our humanity demands of us. 

I'd like to add to that inspiring idea. Every day, we express the thought which I strongly believe should inform our spiritual preparation for Shavuot. In the blessing which precedes our morning recitation of Shema, we declare: O Compassionate Parent, have compassion upon us and instill in our hearts the passion to understand and discern; to listen, learn and teach; to safeguard, perform and fulfill all the teachings of Your Torah, in love. There are three commitments in that declaration. The first is visceral and emotional, the second is intellectual and cerebral and the third is active and behavioral. We dedicate our hearts, minds and hands to the precepts of God's Torah. 

This paragraph has a parallel blessing before the evening recitation of Shema. There we state more briefly our commitment to Torah and mitzvot because they are 'our lives and the length of our days'. What I find interesting, in the Ashkenazick rite, is that these paragraphs have different introductions. At night we describe the 'eternal love (ahavat olam)' of God for the Jewish people, in the bright light of day we proudly acknowledge God's great, abundant or massive love (ahava raba) for our people. As we approach Shavuot, we should feel the love.  

The great preparation for the Time of the Giving of Our Torah is the excitement over reaccepting this gift for two amazing reasons. According to Rav Amital, we anticipate this moment because we, like Yitro, know it's right and good. According to the blessing of Shema, because of God's great and everlasting love. 

There's an argument about whether to stand or sit during Torah reading. Is the reading a recreation of Mt. Sinai (stand) or an exercise in Torah study (sit, relax)? But I don't understand how anyone can sit Shavuot morning. We must be quivering with excitement over the prospect of accepting God's greatest gift to humanity, because it's brand new, again. Nu, isn't that worth staying for?