Monday, June 2, 2014

The Legacy of Ruth

Shavuot, the holiday of the first fruits of the harvest is also celebrated as the day the Jews accepted the Torah.  I've always been a fan of our biblical Ruth, and I love the story that's outlined in the Megilla that we read over the holiday.  A grieving and homeless widow, she shows incredible strength, conviction and determination when she decides to follow her mother-in-law, Naomi, into the unknown.  After the death of her husband, she had the option of turning back towards her people, and starting her life anew, but she chooses to stay with Naomi and face immeasurable hardships instead.  She makes an impassioned plea to her mother-in-law: 'Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried.'  These words, in essence, convert her to Judaism and she takes her vow quite seriously.  

I have always been in awe of those who choose to convert to Judaism.  I know that we are not a proselytizing people.  We have no interest in trying to convince mass amounts of people to convert to our beliefs.  And we discourage those who do show interest.  It might seem like a double standard, since we are commanded to love those who convert, but in reality it isn't.  We discourage and push away, but once someone is committed with their whole being to become a Jew, we help, encourage and take them under our wings.  

But sometimes it makes me wonder why anyone in their right mind would want to convert to Judaism.... Besides the hundreds of restrictions, we also do the strangest things.  We build temporary huts in the chilly fall season, live and eat in them for a week straight (which if you live in arctic Canada is not always so fun...) while shaking a long palm frond and a weird looking lemon.  We eat tasteless cardboard matzah for a week in the spring and remove all flour and bread from our homes.  We have our own version of Halloween and on Chanukah we light a new candle every night for eight nights instead of decorating a Christmas tree.  And I haven't even gotten started on the restrictions... No pulled pork, no lobster rolls, no sautéed scallops or oysters on the half shell.  No cheeseburgers, no chicken Parmesan or meat tacos with sour cream.  No sleeping with your spouse for two weeks out of every month, no electricity from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday and no wearing wool and linen together.  And then there are a bunch of commandments that seem nutty as well. The men have to put this box on their forehead and wrap black leather around their arm while they pray, and wear a circle of fabric on their head and an undershirt with long intricately knotted strings attached to it.

Without knowing the reasons behind all of these things, it seems overwhelming.  Even knowing the reasons behind some of them, it's still at times overwhelming.  But most of us were born into it - it's all we know.  We grew up thinking it was completely normal to eat soup while the rain dripped through the wooden slats of the sukkah as our toes froze off.  Or to drive forty miles out of your way while on vacation just to get some food, while every other tourist walked into any of the hundreds of restaurants in the immediate vicinity.  But those not born into it who want to convert make a conscious choice to CHOOSE it - all of it.  The restrictions, the commandments, and the funny rituals.  And then they have to have that awkward conversation with their families explaining why they want to take all of that on for themselves.  That can't be easy, either.  

I know quite a few people who are converts - a couple of them friends - and every once in a while I ask them questions about it.  What made them make this life-changing choice and how difficult was it for their families.  The answers are always different and always interesting.  But none of it ever really affected me personally until my brother got engaged last winter.  He met a lovely girl who was in the process of converting and he fell in love with her.  She happened to be learning here in Israel for a three month period while they were still dating and as a result, we got to know her pretty well.  How she came to make this choice was rather simple.  She had grown up in a very Jewish neighborhood and went to public school with a lot of Jewish kids.  Simple exposure led to some soul-searching as she grew older.  And that led her to start the conversion process which she was in the middle of when she met my brother.  

She's lucky, in that, her parents were - and still are! - very supportive.  Her mother, being a vegetarian, makes the kosher aspect of it a little easier, but that's the simple stuff.  They are completely respectful of her choice and that's not a small thing.  Honestly, she was basically raised with exactly the same family values that I was, just with a different religion.  She chose to build onto an existing solid foundation that her parents had given her and added Judaism to the mix.  Both sides enthusiastically planned for the summer wedding and it went off without a hitch and we all had a wonderful time dancing the night away.  

While it's not easy to step into a large Jewish orthodox family that boasts about its 'yichus' (impressive family lineage) dating back centuries to famous rabbis in Poland, my sister-in-law did so with grace and courage.  I must remind those of us who outwardly show acceptance while inwardly breathing a sigh of relief, thinking it all fine and dandy as long as he's/she's not marrying into THEIR family, that the most impressive 'yichus' in all of our history came from Ruth.  Ruth was an extraordinary woman - pious, modest, loyal and committed to a life of Torah.  While that's impressive enough on its own, she also happens to be the great-grandmother of King David, a larger-than-life figure of our history who was a great king, dedicated to God and a true leader of our people.  God would not have chosen her to be the great-grandmother of King David if she was not a worthy woman.  You certainly can't have better 'yichus' than that.  

We read Megillat Ruth on Shavuot for many reasons.  King David died on Shavuot, so reading about his great-grandmother's life and the choices she made - which ultimately led to the coronation of our king - seems appropriate.  But we also read it because on that same day, we accepted the Torah.  It was our own conversion - not unlike Ruth's - our own declaration that we would follow God's word and His commandments.  Of which one of them is: "love the convert, for you too were strangers in the land of Egypt (Deuteronomy 10:19)."

Chag Sameach!

1 comment:

  1. How wonderful and we'll put! Thank you Chavi for the awesome blog!