Coming up this week is Shavuot, when we read Megilat Rut, the book of Ruth, the story of a Moabite woman who chooses to become a part of the Jewish people. And on Shavuot, we commemorate the giving of the Torah. So, Ruth’s acceptance of Torah as an individual mirrors our national acceptance of Torah at Sinai.
At Sinai, we had just been freed from slavery, after 10 plagues, and we were gathered at the foot of a mountain. There was thunder, lightening, shofar blasts, smoke, and we heard the voice of God. Is there any wonder that we said naase ve’nishma– we will do and we will hear – that we accepted the Torah?!
But for Ruth? What was there? No sound and lights, no miracles, no tangible presence of God. A different kind of commitment was needed to willingly accept God, accept Torah, and accept Israel.
In our times, the model of Ruth may be more relevant to us than the model of Sinai. We are not privy to great miracles, and in contemporary Western society, we are free to embrace or reject our Jewish heritage as individuals- As some put it, nowadays, we are all “Jews-by-choice”. And this applies not only as a once-and-for-all decision, but at every moment – will we come to synagogue for services or a class this week? Will we just drop off our child at Hebrew school, or will we engage them in conversation about what moves us Jewishly? How far will we take out commitment to tzedaka when we make our budget for the coming year?
So, what brought Ruth to herdecision? No doubt Ruth had her personal spiritual path, but the only thing that we know for sure that, following the death of her husband, connected her to Judaism and to the Jewish people was a relationship with another person – her mother-in-law, Naomi. Naomi was clearly very special – her connection to Ruth was powerful enough to ignite and sustain Ruth’s desire to return with her to the Land of Israel and become a part of our people.
And so, we in our role of Ruth, choosing how to live Jewishly at every moment, all need a Naomi. And this community is fortunate to have a Naomi in your Rabbi, who is, indeed, a very special person:
My good friend, Rabbi Daniel Stein, has the musical skill and sincerity of spirit to daven a beautiful musaf, but he knows that this is not what ultimately brings us closer to God.
He has the depth of learning and intellect to teach a great class – but he knows that this is not what ultimately brings us closer to Torah.
And he has a love and appreciation of Jewish culture that is passionate and contagious – but he knows that this is not what ultimately brings us closer to the people of Israel.
Rabbi Daniel Stein can be the Naomi that we need, because he understands that only through building honest, caring relationships with us, can we make our Jewish choices.
And so he builds these relationships. He engages us with his humor, builds our trust with his integrity, inspires us with his wisdom and knowledge, and reassures us with his humility. I know that I for one have been drawn closer to Judaism and the Jewish people through my relationship with Rabbi Stein, and I hope that every member of this community receives that same blessing.
But even Rabbi Stein cannot do it on his own. If we are all Ruth, having to choose at every moment how to engage with the Jewish tradition, how can any one person, no matter how special, bring us in? What then should we do? In truth, we all have the power to be a Naomi for each other’s Ruth – to draw each other closer to God, Torah and Israel through our relationships.
In Jewish Law, weddings and other celebrations, prayer services and even certain financial transactions, can only take place in the context of community. We are coerced to live with each other. It seems to me that this is more than to fulfil a technical requirement – without a critical mass of involved Jews who care for each other, we cannot endure as committed Jews. We will be Ruth without a tether in Judaism, if we have no Naomi.
By treating each other with compassion and love, tolerating each other’s flaws, and engaging in honest and open conversation, stronger connections are built. These relationships do bring practical and emotional support, but, as we learn from the example of Ruth and Naomi, they also help us to choose to be more complete Jews.
This work is not easy, and that is why communities develop structures to help them do this – like bikkur cholim committees to systematise caring for the sick and support groups for those going through hard times. And this is also why they seek out a rabbi, one who is willing and able to connect to its members and show how relationships are built, who can encourage everyone in the community to play their own essential part. A rabbi, in short, like Rabbi Daniel Stein.
At the end of megilat Rut, Ruth has a son, and this boy is considered to be the son of Naomi as well. And the punchline of the book is that Ruth’s great-grandson becomes King David, from whose line the messiah is said to eventually come. Perhaps by acting like Naomi, and building relationships that eventually lead to improving the world, we too can be considered parents of its redemption.
As you all continue to make your Jewish choices, may you be inspired by your relationships with each other, and with your Rabbi.
Chag Sameah – and Rabbi Stein – Hazak ve Amatz!