Friday, May 22, 2015

Superficiality or Ehrlichkeit?

This evening begins a 3 day Yom Tov. We start with Shabbos and immediately veer into Shavuos on Motzei Shabbos. Shavuos is when we celebrate Matan Torah. The day that God gave the Jewish people His Torah at Sinai. It is a culmination of a period of counting that began on the 2nd day of Pesach. The Gemarah in Shabbos (88a) tells us that the statement in the Torah (Shemos 19:18) which says, ‘They stood under the mountain’ means that God lifted the mountain above our collective heads and said, ‘If you accept the Torah, all will be good.’ ‘If not, this will be your grave!’

And yet immediately after receiving the Torah the people of Israel later proclaimed ‘Na’aseh V’Nishma’ (Shemos 24:7)  -  we will do and we will listen. This is quintessential proclamation of accepting the Mitzvos before we even knew what they entailed. Are not these two verses in the Torah contradictory?

The Gemarah addresses this question (Shabbos 88a).

So which is it? Coercion or blind obedience? This is a famous question which has many answers.  One of which is that this is the very nature of our relationship with the Torah. On the one hand we are forced to accept it. If we don’t there are severe consequences. That is expressed by the first verse. On the other hand, in the second verse we show our enthusiastic willingness to do so. 

This is an important facet of our relationship with God. The idea being that Judaism is a religion that requires more than a forced relationship with God. Forced relationships are often characterized by the superficial nature of them. Na’aseh V’Nishma represents a willingness of the heart to observance of Halacha. It requires more than a forced version of observance. Which might be perfunctory and performed resentfully. It requires clinging to God. That idea is expressed in the biblical story of Ruth (Megilas Rus) which is customarily read on Shavuos.

To briefly summarize - Ruth and Orpah were the Moabite women whose Jewish husbands had died. Naomi was their mother in law whose husband had also died. Having lived in Moab at that time, Naomi decided to return to Israel. Both Ruth and Orpah loved their mother in law and wanted to follow her to Israel and convert.

Naomi tried to talk them both out of it – as is our custom when a non Jew wants to convert. We try and explain how difficult Judaism is to observe and fear that if they convert and then find observance too hard they will revert to not keeping the Mitzvos of the Torah. As non Jews there was no sin in that. But as Jews there would be and they would be better off as believing gentiles.

Orpah was convinced to return to Moab and resume her Moabite way of life. She kissed Naomi on the cheek and went on her way.  Ruth on the other hand would not budge. She famously said, ‘Where you  go, I will go.’ ‘Your people is my people.’ ‘Your God is my God.’ (Ruth 1:16-17) And she clung to Naomi.

The Gemarah in Sotah (42b) tells us that Orpah’s descendants were distinguished by viciousness, immorality, and anitsemitism. Ruth’s descendants were kings, prophets, and poets. Orpah produced Israel’s arch enemy the Philistine giant Goliath. Ruth produced David. Israel was constantly at war with the Philistines both militarily and culturally. This was epitomized by the battle between David and Goliath. People against people.  Culture against culture.

All this can be traced back to their grandmothers, Ruth and Orpah. The difference between them in how they expressed their love for Naomi were subtle. But that subtlety made all the difference in the world. Orpah kissed Naomi on the cheek and parted with her. Ruth clung to Naomi.  One’s affection was superficial – a kiss on the cheek. And the other showed a far more deeply held conviction. Orpah returned to her formerly pagan ways and her progeny were evil. Ruth became a Giyores (convert) that ultimately produced David, the great King and poet who authored Tehilim.  And from whose line Moshiach will come.

The moral of this story, I think, is that superficiality will never suffice in Judaism. Hats and jackets do not substitute for Ehrlichkeit - sincerity and devotion to God and his Torah. All of it. The Mitzvos Bein Adam L’Makom (man and God) and the Mitzvos Bein Adam L’Chavero (man and his fellow man). Half measures will not do. We cannot be sincere Jews if we only honor one side of the Asseres HaDibros - the 10 Commandments. We must honor all of it and cling to it. We cannot be a pious Jew is Shul and a thief in business. We must be like Ruth and cling to the Torah and perform Mitzvos willingly and lovingly. That will help  give us a bright future.  Orpah’s superficial kiss showed who she really was. And ended up as the progenitor of an evil people.

Chag Sameach

*Loosely based on a sermon given by Dr. Norman Lamm, published in ‘Festivals of Faith’