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Shavuot II 5783        May 27, 2023

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach

Since Shavuot is the festival where we celebrate the giving of the Torah, it was exceptionally appropriate to read about the giving of the Torah yesterday. But what are we to do for an appropriate reading today? We could have read the second account of the Ten Commandments in the Book of Devarim/Deuteronomy but that is only a description 40 years after what Israel experienced 40 years earlier.

It is customary, on the last day of a festival to read the same reading we always read at the end of a festival, the calendar of holidays we find in Parshat Re’eh. I like to think of this reading as reminding us that the calendar has many holidays and that we need to celebrate them all equally. It is a good teaching but has nothing to do with the giving of the Torah.

Dr. Amy Kalmanofsky, a professor of Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary, reminds us that on the second day of Shavuot, we are to read from the Megillat Rut, from the book of Ruth. Most people teach that because the story of Ruth takes place during the barley harvest in Israel, and Shavuot is celebrated after the barley harvest, it is an appropriate read for today. But Dr. Kalmanofsky notices a more subtle reason for reading the book of Ruth today. This is the holiday that we accept the Torah that God presents to us. Ruth also accepts the Torah just like Israel accepted Torah on this day.

The megillot of the Bible are a strange collection of stories. Aicha and Kohelet are not stories at all but collections of lamentations and advice. The Book of Esther and the Song of Songs are all missing any reference to God. The book of Ruth only mentions God in passing. The people of the book offer prayers and praise to God, but God never says or does anything. Ruth fits right in to these five books that make up the collection of Megillot.

Ruth is a fascinating character. She is from Moab, one of the least likely places to look for someone to connect to the God of Israel. There is a history of animosity between Israel and Moab, from the time they refused to let Israel cross their land when they were on their way to the Promised Land. Balak, the king of Moab, hires a professional prophet, Bilham, to curse Israel to protect his land. The Moabites try and entice Israel away from God with their prostitutes. It is only the kindness of Ruth to Naomi that helps her be accepted by the people of Bethlehem.

Ruth also represents another aspect of Judaism that we don’t find anywhere else. The book of Ruth is filled with dialogue, something even the Torah itself is missing. Other than a long chapter in Berayshit/Genesis where Eliezer explains why Abraham sent him off in search of a bride for Isaac, repeating the story multiple times, the Torah is not very big on dialogue. God speaks and the people do as they are told. Sometimes someone will question what God is asking, but we never get the kind of conversations that we see in the Book of Ruth.

Dr. Kalmanofsky notes that these conversations not only build a relationship between the people who are in the book of Ruth, but also express how these people relate to each other. She gives more than a few examples:

There is the moment when Naomi first leaves Moab with her two widowed daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, and demands that they return to their mothers. Distraught, they both weep and refuse to leave Naomi’s side (Ruth 1:8-10).

There is the moment when Naomi again begs Ruth and Orpah to return home to start over again with new husbands. This time, weeping and heartbroken, Orpah kisses her mother-in-law farewell and heads home while Ruth clings to Naomi (Ruth 1:14).

There is the moment when Boaz finds Ruth gleaning in his field and insists that she continue to do so, promising her protection (Ruth 2:8-9) and insisting that she eat and drink among his harvesters (Ruth 2:14).

There is the moment when Ruth returns to Naomi after gleaning in Boaz’s field and offers her what she has gleaned as well as a portion of the food that was offered to her (Ruth 2:17-18).

There is the moment when Boaz withholds himself from Ruth in order to approach a more appropriate kinsman to marry her yet promises to marry her should the kinsman refuse (Ruth 3:11-13).

There is the moment that Boaz negotiates with the kinsman on Ruth’s behalf (Ruth 4.3-6).

There is the moment when the townspeople witness Boaz’s commitment to Ruth and welcome her into his house as if she were one of the biblical foremothers Rachel, Leah, or Tamar (Ruth 4:11-12).

There is the moment when the women of Bethlehem bless Naomi and declare Ruth to be better to her than seven sons (Ruth 4:15).

There is the moment when Naomi places Ruth’s child to her breast and fully accepts the child and his mother into her family (Ruth 4:16-17).

These relationships too are driven by the kindness and compassion of Ruth. There is no intrigue, nor is there any tension that drives this story. It is only the simple acts of kindness, loyalty, and love that result in the bounty that all the people in the story will enjoy.

Having endured almost three years of COVID isolation, we can easily appreciate the connectedness of the people in the Book of Ruth. Living our lives without being able to connect in person to others made life quite difficult. Although, over the time of the pandemic, connecting with others could lead to illness and even death, there were those who struggled so hard not being able to touch or caress another.

I remember also that death, the ultimate separation, was made even harder by our inability to remain close to those who were dying, having to bury our dead with only a limited number of family able to be present and then doing a virtual shiva, where those we needed to comfort and console us had to stay over six feet away. Human beings need connections to others. The years of COVID were very difficult years.

We are here today not just to remember the kindness of Ruth but to also remember the kindness of all those who were once a part of our lives. Love and loyalty do live on long after a life ends. The Rabbis teach that we always say a blessing before we perform a Mitzvah, but there are exceptions to this rule. One of these exceptions is the fact that there is no blessing before the Mitzvah of honoring our parents. We are all expected to perform the Mitzvah of honoring our parents, but we can’t recite a blessing before we honor them. The Sages tell us this is because the Mitzvah begins before we are born, and it is a mitzvah that never ends. Even after our parents die, we still are required to honor our parents. We honor them at Yizkor, and we honor them in the way we live our lives.

I once knew a woman who had been told by her doctors that her days were coming to an end. Within a few days, the disease would consume her body. I visited her in the emergency room, she was with her daughter as she waited for the caregivers from hospice to arrive. She said to me, “I am 98 years old. I have done everything I could ever hope to accomplish in my life. I am not sad about dying. I have lived a good life and I could not ask for anything more.” I told her that this was a great blessing, to die without any regrets.

Then she said to me, “Rabbi, I have only one request. I have lived such a good life. I am not unhappy about my dying and my children should not be unhappy either. Please tell them that they don’t have to mourn my death after I am gone. There is no need to be sad about my dying.”

I looked her straight in the eye and said, “I think you should mind your own business.” She looked at me shocked. I continued, “When you die your children are going to miss you. They are going to miss having you and your love in their life. And when they miss you, they are going to be sad. There is nothing you can do, nothing I can do, there is nothing anyone can do to stop this. If you had been a mean, nasty mother, they would not care at all about your dying, but NO, you had to be a kind caring and wonderful mother to your children. They are going to be sad when you are gone, and it will take them a long time to learn to live with that sadness.” Her daughter, sitting across the room, was nodding her head in agreement.

Yizkor is a time of sadness. It is THE time for sadness. When Jews celebrate a festival, we are not allowed to be sad. Holidays are a time for rejoicing. So, we set this time aside, at the very end of our holiday, to acknowledge those we cannot celebrate with anymore. We pause to remember those who once sat in the now empty seat at our table. We set this time aside to remember the good times, the happy moments, and the wise advice of those who are gone. And we shed a few tears. The sadness does not go away. We only learn to live with it. We learn to treasure this time, set aside for their memory.

The time for Yizkor approaches. The time to stir up those old memories of love that is gone and remember those who helped make us the kind, caring people that we are today. To shed a few tears in their memory is a good thing. Tears are just the price we pay for loving someone. It is a small price for a life filled with good memories.

May God be with us and let us praise God for the many blessings we remember as we rise at this time for the prayers of Yizkor.

Mon, February 26 2024 17 Adar I 5784