A woman I met who was devastated over the fact that her only son had married a non-Jewish woman shared with me what she considered to be the defining moment of that scenario. She and her husband were happily residing in New York, when her husband was offered a position with about double the salary and quadruple the prestige of his current job. The only catch was that they would have to move to a small Midwest town with a non-existent Jewish population.
“At the time, my son was about five years old. My husband and I agonized over the decision for weeks. Did we want to leave our families, and the big city life? How would we adjust to a new culture? What would we lose and what would we gain?
“Among our many considerations, I also thought about the fact that our son would have no Jewish peers and would grow up with no reinforcement to his Judaism. I remember pausing in my list making—and dashing that down on the con side of the paper– where it was quickly outweighed by all the pros.
“On the evening my husband sent out his formal acceptance of the offer, we cracked open a bottle of champagne and drank to our exciting new adventure. Little did we know that we were merrily drinking to the culmination of the long line of illustrious Jews on both sides of our families, whose end would come about through the decision of my son to do the completely understandable—marry a wonderful woman whom he met in his predominantly non-Jewish college after a comfortably- unruffled- by- Judaism -childhood in a non- Jewish culture.
“That tiny voice inside me that I could barely hear, that faint stirring of my Jewish soul, was drowned out by the voice of reason: you don’t give up such a great opportunity; the voice of comfort: it will probably be OK; and the voice of practicality: we’ll send him to Sunday school.”
MAKING SENSE DOES NOT ALWAYS MAKE CENTS
A relationship with G-d is often not so practical. It might ask us to give up a great career opportunity so as not to betray our value system—a friend recently left a great job because the prevailing culture of cynicism and gossip was tearing her down. It might ask of us to extend ourselves to give ten percent of our income to charity—when our budget is tight for our own family and we really don’t really feel like being generous. There were times in our history where choosing a relationship with G-d meant facing up to inquisitions and crusades; being burned at the stake definitely fits into the category of not practically beneficial.
And besides the lack of drum rolls and practical benefits, choosing a relationship with G-d does not guarantee a life surrounded by a cloud of glory. Not only is the world often unaware of our heroic decision—we ourselves can easily forget why we actually chose to be in this difficult situation. The momentary clarity that fueled our decision of courage often shrivels away under an avalanche of routine, forgetfulness and second-guessing. If the woman in the story above would have stayed in New York, chances are that others would have looked at them as just another family who couldn’t get ahead. And even they, themselves–even if their son would have married a Jew– may have long forgotten their short moment of truth, when they weighed temporality against eternity.
VIVE LA DIFFERENCE
Did Orpah, the sister of Ruth and fellow princess of Moab, in the Book of Ruth, have any idea of the ramifications of her decision when she took leave of Naomi? Naomi’s arguments were pragmatic; they were also true. There would be no practical benefit in going with Naomi, who would end up indigent and having to scramble for food in a stranger’s fields. Going with Naomi would mean resigning herself to a lonely life with no chance of remarriage or rebuilding.
And it wasn’t an easy decision for Orpah. Orpah cried when Naomi tried to convince her to return. It seemed that all Naomi’s practical arguments could not drown out the yearning of Orpah’s soul to touch greatness. But, in the end, Orpah responded to the logic in Naomi’s words, and she turned around and went back to Moab. Orpah—whose name stems from the same root as the word oreph, back of the neck, chose to turn her back on relationship with G-d.
Ruth and Orpah, were sisters, Moabite princesses, and had married brothers. Perhaps our Sages tell us about all those similarities to set this moment of difference in stark relief. Orpah, like Ruth, stood poised before greatness, and yet with one prosaic, practical little decision, Orpah turned her back on eternity. The difference between soaring and crashing is only minutes long.
SO CLOSE AND YET SO FAR
Hundreds of years later this tiny little difference had evolved into a clash between cultures, manifesting itself not only in the inner, hidden heart of two sisters, but in the crashing difference in physique between their two descendants, Goliath and David. Goliath– grandchild of Orpah, huge, strong warrior, ambassador of might makes right, mocker of the inchoate voice from deep within the human soul–faces off with David, “sweet singer of Israel”, quintessential yearner, and grandson of Ruth–who chose to cling to Naomi, though it made no sense at all.
In describing this crash between world views, our Sages say: “May the son of the one who was kissed, fall into the hands of the one who clung (who remained loyal).” Orpah is referred to as the one who was kissed and yet in the Book of Ruth, it is Orpah who kisses Naomi when she leaves her. Why is Orpah referred to as the one who was kissed when she was the one who kissed? Because kissing is the physical manifestation of reciprocity. Kissing is being kissed.
True, Orpah kissed Naomi when she left her, but she kissed Naomi because she had been kissed by Naomi. Orpah wasn’t a spiritual deadweight, deaf and blind to the stirrings for closeness to G-d, that Naomi represented. She had been kissed—her soul had soared with the possibilities of what could be—if she was willing to take the plunge. But in the end practicalities won over. Our sages tell us that the forty steps that Orpah took to accompany Naomi were returned to her when Goliath was granted a forty day reprieve from David, the four tears she cried, resulted in the four great warriors who descended from her. Greatness, so close at hand, had been thwarted. And greatness—which has been sidetracked and missed the mark—produces greatness that has been sidetracked and misses the mark.
Shavout is a day when G-d holds out His hand and offers us a chance to enter into that scary place called relationship— where the goal is closeness, not practical benefit.
A former student of mine who became observant and whose life since she entered the world of Torah observance has not been a bed of roses, shared with me how she sometimes rethinks her decision. Was it worth it? On hard days she feels angry. Why didn’t they warn me that things would be this hard? But, on Shavout, she said, things always become very clear to her. A relationship with G-d, is itself the point that makes it all worthwhile.
On Shavout, the gates are wide open. True, Orpah turned her back, but Ruth stepped through the portal. There were no drum rolls, no music building to a crescendo—or at least not at a decibel that Ruth could hear. Disdain, poverty, and humiliation awaited her–and glory, greatness and deliverance. G-d tells us in the Torah, that He brought us to Sinai to be close to Him. It may not be practical, easy or comfortable, but in the end, Ruth—whose name means satiated—chose life.