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Toward Shavuot

As we move toward Shavuot we prepare to receive Torah once again, readying ourselves for what the gift of Torah might mean for each of us at this moment in our lives. As I sit writing this, I am aware that this is my last Shavuot as one of your rabbis, that this is in fact my last week at B’nai Jeshurun. As I prepare to receive Torah as part of the ongoing process of revelation and as an affirmation of my unique place among the Jewish people, I am also thinking of the Torah you have taught me over these past two years and all of the ways in which that Torah will be part of my journey going forward. 

Traditionally, Moshe is the paradigmatic teacher of Torah. He receives the Torah directly from God and speaks Torah to the people of Israel. On Shavuot, however, we read of another important teacher of Torah. In the midrash Ruth Rabbah, Naomi is described not only as Ruth’s mother-in-law but also as her teacher, instructing her in the laws of conversion and teaching her the Torah of the Jewish people.  

Ruth Rabbah 2:22

וַתֹּאמֶר רוּת אַל תִּפְגְּעִי בִי לְעָזְבֵךְ לָשׁוּב מֵאַחֲרָיִךְ (רות א, טז), מַהוּ אַל תִּפְגְּעִי בִי, אָמְרָה לָהּ לֹא תֶחֱטָא עָלַי, לָא תִסְּבִין פְּגָעַיִךְ מִנִּי, לְעָזְבֵךְ לָשׁוּב מֵאַחֲרָיִךְ, מִכָּל מָקוֹם דַּעְתִּי לְהִתְגַּיֵּר, אֶלָּא מוּטָב עַל יָדֵךְ וְלֹא עַל יְדֵי אַחֶרֶת. כֵּיוָן שֶׁשָּׁמְעָה נָעֳמִי כָּךְ הִתְחִילָה סוֹדֶרֶת לָהּ הִלְכוֹת גֵּרִים, אָמְרָה לָהּ בִּתִּי אֵין דַּרְכָּן שֶׁל בְּנוֹת יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵילֵךְ לְבָתֵּי תֵּיאַטְרָאוֹת וּלְבָתֵּי קִרְקָסִיאוֹת שֶׁל גּוֹיִם. אָמְרָה לָהּ, אֶל אֲשֶׁר תֵּלְכִי אֵלֵךְ. אָמְרָה לָהּ בִּתִּי אֵין דַּרְכָּן שֶׁל יִשְׂרָאֵל לָדוּר בְּבַיִת שֶׁאֵין שָׁם מְזוּזָה. אָמְרָה לָהּ, בַּאֲשֶׁר תָּלִינִי אָלִין עַמֵּךְ עַמִּי, אֵלּוּ עֳנָשִׁין וְאַזְהָרוֹת. וֵאלֹהַיִךְ אֱלֹהָי, שְׁאָר מִצְווֹת 

And Ruth said: entreat me not to leave you and to return from following you (Ruth 1:16)”— what does “entreat” [lit. “hurt”] mean? Ruth said to Naomi, “Do not sin against me by telling me to leave and return from following you. I intend to convert anyway, and it is better that I do it with you than with someone else.” When Naomi heard this, she immediately began to lay out before Ruth the laws of conversion. Naomi said, “My daughter, Jewish women do not go to the non-Jews’ theaters and circuses.” Ruth said, “Where you go, I will go.” Naomi said, “My daughter, Jewish women do not live in a house where there is no mezuzah.” Ruth said, “Where you lodge, I will lodge.” “Your people shall be my people,” refers to warning and punishment, and “Your God shall be my God” refers to the rest of the commandments.

 How BJ Teaches the Torah

This remarkable text offers an expansive understanding of who our teachers of Torah can be. Naomi teaches Ruth the halakha, the laws, and she also teaches Ruth the ways those laws were understood in their particular community at that particular time. Midrashim such as this offer new possibilities for understanding what Torah is and who can teach it—who can translate its relevance and application in our community and in our time. Men and women, rabbis, scholars, family members, and children—there are so many people from whom we can learn important Torah. 

These past two years, I have been blessed to learn and grow alongside you as you shared your Torah with me and with each other. You taught your Torah under the tallit at the end of Shabbat morning services, holding babies in your arms and grasping the sticky hands of toddlers and big kids alike. You taught your Torah during kiddush, engaging in conversations about the parashah or the latest news with curiosity and acumen, celebrating the joys of community and creating Shabbat together week after week. I learned your children’s Torah on Tuesdays during Kadima tefillah and on retreats and immersive experiences, reveling in their questions about God, their eagerness to connect, their innate goodness and their wonder at the world around them. You taught your Torah in the quiet moments we spent talking in my office, of healing or heartache, of loss and of hope. For all the ways you shared your Torah with me, I am grateful. 

You, the members of BJ, from youngest to oldest, have shown me what it means to recognize the Torah that is uniquely ours to offer and, at the same time, remain open to the Torah those around us have to teach. May this be our blessing on Shavuot, and always.