Thursday, May 28, 2009

Ruth and Barack, the Ideal and the Real, and Jerusalem

Ruth the Moabite had been ruined by her association with Jews; she had married a wealthy young man, and then he had died, along with his brother and his father. The family’s wealth had disappeared. Now her mother-in-law Naami was preparing to abandon her and return to a place where Moabites were persona non grata - and Ruth insisted on accompanying her to that hostile land, without a penny to their names.

Naami was astounded; what could this young girl want with her, and her people? What practical gain could be in store for an impoverished, friendless Moabite in a Jewish land?

But Ruth insisted, “אל תפגעי בי לעזבך לשוב מאחריך, Don’t plead with me to leave you, to cease following you . Where you will go, I will go. Where you will sleep, I will sleep. Your nation is my nation; your Gd is my Gd. Where you will die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May Gd act against me, and may Gd do more against me, if anything but death will separate us.”

The megilah doesn’t tell us what inspired Ruth, only that she was idealistically certain that this was the nation and the Gd to which she would commit her life. באשר תלכי אלך – Where you will go, I will go.

Contrast Ruth’s idealism with the survivalist pragmatism of a man named Barak, a Jewish general of some 3200 years ago.

In Barak’s day, the Jews lived under oppression by the Canaanites. They cried out to Gd, and their prophetess, Devorah, commanded Barak in the name of HaShem to lead a rebellion against the Canaanites. She even gave him a military strategy, instructing him which tribes to take with him, and where to engage in battle.

But Barak, a realist, was intimidated by the task, and he refused to lead alone. Instead, Barak offered Devorah a bargain which reversed the language of Ruth’s idealism. He said, “אם תלכי עמי והלכתי ואם לא תלכי לא אלך, If you will go with me then I will go, but if you will not go then I will not go either.”

Judaism tends toward Barak’s pragmatism:
• We focus on this world rather than meditate on the reward waiting for us in the afterlife;
• We save lives even in violation of the Torah’s mitzvot;
• We recognize the authority of civil government;
• We override Rabbinic law regularly for שעת הדחק, cases of need.

Nonetheless, Judaism has a long history of honoring the quixotic charge of the idealist:
• Avraham and Sarah set up an Eshel inn at the northern tip of the Negev desert, and welcomed travelers in the name of HaShem;
• The Jews at Har Sinai declared “נעשה ונשמע, We will do and we will hear,” blindly pledging obedience to a law they did not yet know;
• Our vision of mashiach is of an עני ורוכב על החמור, a pauper riding a donkey, anointed for his piety rather than for the pragmatic values of wealth or social status.

To borrow a passage from Man of La Mancha, “Maddest of all [is] to see life as it is, and not as it should be. ” This emphasis on idealism, on seeing the world as it should be, is a most Jewish concept; Judaism nods to the pragmatic, but it reveres the idealistic.

We have just completed a seven-week journey from Egyptian slavery to Divine revelation at Sinai, a trek during which an entire nation was challenged to metamorphose from Barak-style pragmatists to Ruth-style idealists.

A slave cannot afford ideology; he is too busy trying to satisfy his master and avoid harm. Through the desert trip that slavish pragmatism was quite visible, too; the constant attention to food and water reflected a mind that could not see past its most immediate needs.

But, eventually, this nation stood at Sinai and established that same נעשה ונשמע attitude which would become Ruth’s mantra. On Shavuos we read Ruth’s story for many reasons, but surely one is her willingness to embrace a Torah about which she knew little, her personal נעשה ונשמע.

Certainly, a Ruth-based yearning for the ideal can set the Jew at odds with the world in which he lives and with which he must make some peace; for an example, look no further than the news of the past two weeks, regarding the international stances on the future of Yerushalayim.

The United States, led by a different Barack, is opting for a pragmatic, survivalist stance; ditto for Europe, as expressed last week by France. They look at Yerushalayim on a practical level: The Arab world will never be satisfied with a Middle East that does not incorporate a state of Palestine, with its capital in Yerushalayim. The wrath of that Arab world, seen from a pragmatist’s perspective, is a lot more dangerous than the outrage of the Jewish world – so guess who wins?

But we know how a Devorah would reply: Yerushalayim is not a random hilltop, it is the ideal of ideals within Judaism!

The walls of Yerushalayim encircle critical elements of Jewish history; just two weeks ago they found yet another shard with an inscription dating back to the period of the first Beit haMikdash, apparently marked with the name of a king mentioned in Tanach.

Those walls also encircle the essence of Jewish unity, a city owned not by any one tribe but by the nation as a whole. To this city, Jews would flock for aliyah laregel every Yom Tov. To this city, Jews would bring their maaser sheni tithe, beautifying the markets with their produce. And to this city, Jews would come every Shavuot with their Bikkurim/first fruits and give them to the kohanim.

And those walls also encircle the essence of Jewish spirituality, the Beit haMikdash and its associated triple-corded bond between individual and nation and HaShem. It is not for nothing that the sages speak of a Yerushalayim shel Maalah, a heavenly Yerushalayim parallel to Yerushalayim here on earth, a city above in which HaShem can be found when we gather in the city below.

For the Jew, descendant of the idealistic Ruth, Yerushalayim is the indispensable ideal, and this sets him at odds with the world’s survivalists, whether the military Barak of Tanach or the presidential Barack of today.

To be a descendant of idealistic Ruth often means to be at odds with the world’s pragmatic Baraks, and we must find a way to mediate between those poles.

Today we celebrate Shavuot, and we also mark the engagement of __________ and _________.

Building a Jewish home requires a blending of the real and the ideal, but the ideal must always reign supreme.

In the beginning it’s all ideal; the thoughts of how married life will look are untempered by real experience, the conversations are about ideas more than they are about reality. Certainly, an engaged couple deals with the specific facts of the wedding, of where to live, of what sort of home to have, but it’s without the nuts and bolts that make up daily life, the price of yogurt, the questions of who will prepare dinner, mow the lawn and take out the trash, the specifics of paying bills on time. Then, once a couple becomes responsible for a home, for each other, for shared life, that’s when reality kicks in and ideology can be a struggle.

To build a strong Jewish home requires both Ruth and Barak, but more Ruth than Barak. Yes, the Jewish family must make concessions to reality, but the ideological commitment of building a Jewish home, of having active Torah study at every meal, of having Shabbat guests and a tzedakah box and sefarim, must remain primary.

[Here I'll cut the web version, since the rest is about this couple in particular.]

No notes to add for this one, for lack of time, but there's a lot more to say sometime on Judaism, the real and the ideal...

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