Shavuot: A new model of relationship where women are (also) in the narrative

We first find the festival in the book of Exodus where it is called called הקציר חג hag ha-katzir “the  festival of harvest” later clarified with the information that the harvest is of “the first-fruits of your labours” (Exodus 23:16). When we meet it in Leviticus (ch23) it has no name but we are told to count seven complete weeks plus one day -fifty days- and then bring a new meal offering and other sacrifices – the first fruits – to God. In the book of Numbers (28:26) we are told it is  “the day of the first-fruits, הבכורים יום when you bring a new meal-offering to the Eternal in your feast of weeks” and in Deuteronomy it is called the festival of Shavuot because of the counting of seven weeks from having put the sickle to the standing grain.

There is nothing in bible about this being the festival of the giving of Torah, the name we use now in our liturgical marking of the festival. Shavuot as we know it is a construction that builds on the ritual of bringing first fruits as sacrifices to the Temple to acknowledge God’s presence in our lives, and replaces this with the covenantal relationship we have as a people with God, a relationship which is documented and defined by the giving and receiving of Torah.

So how amazing it is then that this festival which is the bridge par excellence between Temple and Rabbinic Judaism has as one of its major texts the story told in the book of Ruth, one of only two books named for a woman in the whole of Torah, a book which places women and women’s relationships right at the centre of the narrative, as one of them freely accepts all the obligations of Torah to join the Jewish people, and the other acts as her guide and support.

Other women also feature in the book, with strong supporting roles. Orpah, the other sister in law, who chooses to go back to her own people rather than go forward with Ruth and Naomi to an unknown future. The women of Bethlehem who act like a chorus and comment on the situation of Naomi. Even the matriarchs Rachel and Leah and the brave and resourceful Tamar make an extraordinary appearance, when the elders tell Boaz: ‘We are witnesses. The Eternal make the woman that is come into your house like Rachel and like Leah, which two did build the house of Israel….and let your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah, of the seed which the Eternal shall give thee of this young woman.’ (Ruth 4:11-12)

As we are modelling a new relationship with God that has moved from the cult of sacrificial worship to a Judaism based on words and actions that aspire to bring us closer to God, the leading figures are the women, and we have two pairs of women – Naomi and Ruth, Rachel and Leah, who have modelled for us an extraordinary generous and compassionate relationship. The sisters had had the misfortune to marry the same man, and therefore be thrown into competition with each other, something that is not referred to in the text before Jacob came along, and we know that Rachel took pity on her older – and less loved -sister Leah by giving her tokens to seduce Jacob. Naomi and Ruth had the misfortune to be widowed and left without masculine support in a patriarchal world, but Ruth’s determination to stay with Naomi and Naomi’s supportive matriarchal abilities meant that all ended well for them both – indeed it is in this book that we find the only time a woman is described as loving another woman – right at the end of the book the women of Bethlehem say that Ruth loves (a.ha.v) Naomi, and Naomi nurses Ruth’s child, an act of extraordinary love and unity. Their relationship is the exact opposite of the parody of mother-in-law / daughter-in-law. It’s true there is no husband/son to fight over but they do not fight over the child/grandchild but instead are both functioning as its mother – indeed the women of Bethlehem say “a child is born to Naomi” rather than to Ruth – the mothering is from both women without problem.

The blessing given when Boaz is to marry Ruth is another extraordinary piece of text. “The Eternal make the woman that is come into your house like Rachel and like Leah, which two did build the house of Israel”. There is a clear resonance with the blessing by Jacob of his two grandsons by Joseph (Genesis 48:20) “By you will Israel bless, saying: God make thee as Ephraim and as Manasseh” – itself a blessing of harmonisation, given that Ephraim (the younger) is placed above Manasseh, with no complaint or jealousy shown by the boys, a first in the blessing of sons in the book of Genesis. So again this is a blessing of resolution of any rivalries, a bringing together of two who might fight against each other but instead choose to work together without hostility. Then comes the naming of Rachel and Leah, sisters whose relationship may have been poisoned by the actions of Jacob, each wanting what the other had from him – one wanting love, the other wanting children. Apart from the disruption in their lives caused by Jacob, there is no textual reference to any hostility between them. And here they are credited as being the two who built the house of Israel.  Sarah and Rebecca here are less important as matriarchs – it is the mothers of the twelve tribes who take centre stage as with the tribal configuration Israel becomes less one family and more one people. I am aware that Bilhah and Zilpah are also the mothers of sons of Jacob and are not credited with this – I think because legally they are surrogates, the children not belonging to them, and this is a subject that will be given space in the future.

So here as the denouement of the text, the marriage of the foreign woman Ruth to Boaz a descendant of Tamar and Judah, and the bringing into the house of Naomi (who midrash gives a genealogy that will also lead to Judah and Tamar) means that the house of Boaz will be built like the house of Israel – the Jewish people will grow in numbers and in strength, but also be ready to receive Torah in its life, as Ruth has demonstrated her willing acceptance out in the wilds Moab just as the Israelites demonstrated their acceptance in the wilds of Sinai. There is a harmonisation, a sense of bringing together loose ends and readying for the next stage, and it is all done through the relationship of women with each other, choosing not to try to best each other or outdo each other, but to work together to build for the future.

And what an edifice was built on the foundations of these women. Of Tamar who boldly waylaid Judah in order to have the child that was rightfully hers and that would liberate her from yevamah. Of Rachel and Leah who became the matriarchs of tribal Judaism. Of Naomi who survived the deaths of her husband and sons, who ‘came back empty’ in her own words but who found the way to replenish and rebuild, based on her relationship of love and dvekut with her foreign daughter in law. Of Ruth, whose behaviour would not now pass the test of tzniut in many communities, but who also found a way to replenish and rebuild a life that may otherwise have dwindled into nothing.

The edifice built was ultimately the Davidic line of monarchy as the genealogy at the end of the book tells us.  And this is another ‘wild card’ in the patriarchal narrative we are so used to. For David is the grandchild of a Moabite woman and a descendant of more than one woman who used their bodies and their sexuality to gain what they needed. He is the descendant of men who left Beit Lechem to go to the hated Moab in time of famine and paid for it with their lives. He is the scion of a family with more skeletons in their wardrobe than one can imagine, and at the same time he is the descendant of women who broke the mould of sibling rivalries and patriarchal power plays, who chose to work together, to love each other in the most unlikely circumstances, to help each other unselfishly.

Torah was given to a people who were afraid and trembling, in a desert where they were insecure by a God who was so terrifying that they begged Moses to act as intermediary and agent for them. Sinai is a powerful piece of theatre with smoke and mountains that shook and the sound of a shofar piercing the air. At Shavuot we get a different model – a young woman who willingly and with love stays with an older woman and helps her return to her home, an older woman who willingly and with love guides the younger towards a future that will be blessed with security and warmth. No great theatre, no powerful revelation, just the day to day living of two people helping each other out.

I think the rabbis chose well when this book became the story read to parallel the theophany at Sinai. Here are the women, who were so hidden from view in the Exodus telling of the story. Here are the ordinary and quotidian activities of people caring for each other. Here is a true story of love and of people helping each other to what they need – no fireworks, no drama – just the reality of covenantal relationship in its quiet and extraordinary glory.

 

Ki Tavo: Moses’ words echo today – what of us will echo in the future?

Ki Tavo includes the famously difficult passage known as the tochecha, the red lines of society’s expectations laid down mainly in the form of the cursing of the one who disobeys, but there is a great deal more in this speech which is part of the series given by an increasingly anxious Moses as he approaches his death. The whole thrust of the book of Deuteronomy is given life by Moses’ desperate wish to help the Israelite people continue on their journey with God after he is no longer around to help them. So here we have the ritual of sacrificing the first harvested fruits of the land to God carefully spelled out – the fruits should be put in a basket, taken to a specific place of worship, given to the priest of the time – and one of the earliest bits of liturgical speech is also given here – the people must say to the priest “I profess this day to the Eternal­­­­­­­­­ your God that I am come unto the land which the Eternal swore to our ancestors to give us”. The priest will take the basket and place it at the altar, and then the speech is to continue: “A wondering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there, few in number; and he became there a nation, great mighty and populous. And the Egyptians dealt badly with us and afflicted us and laid upon us hard bondages. And we cried to the Eternal the God of our ancestors, and God heard our voice and saw our affliction and our toil and our oppression. And the Eternal God brought us out from Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness and with signs and with wonders, and God brought us into this place and has given us the land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And I have brought the first of the fruit of the land which you O God have given me”.

The whole script is prescribed – and after it what shall happen – you will then worship God, you will rejoice in all the good that God has given to you, and so on.

The text is familiar to even the most distanced of Jews – it is the basis for the text of the Haggadah that we read at Pesach. Word for word Moses’ script is recited when we remember the Exodus from Egypt at the Seder each year. The actual figure of Moses may never have been allowed into the Haggadah in case people should begin to believe that it was his leadership rather than God’s that took us on our journey into peoplehood and covenant, but that becomes irrelevant when we realise that something far more important has been imported untouched by the editorial process of the book – the direct prayer of Moses is embedded in the text as if in amber. The rabbinic statement that a scholar does not ever die fully if his teachings are remembered – phrased evocatively as “his lips move in the grave when his words are recounted” – means that Moses’ teaching really has been passed down the generations and his humanity and presence really do remain among us.

As we move towards the Yamim Noraim we are prompted to remember those who taught us our religious and ethical values, and it is a custom in this period to visit the graves of those family members and teachers who have died. We are going to be facing our own ‘day of judgement’ to spend at least one day looking at our lives from the perspective of our own death as we abstain from food and drink and the normal everyday activities we do every other day of the year. We weigh up our actions in the past year and maybe further; consider who we have been, what lessons can be inferred from how we have lived our lives. So the question we have to ask of ourselves now is – how have we done? How are our actions an expression of our values? Will we have been a strong link in a chain or an irrelevant and vestigial structure appended to the community without much adding to it?

Every year our liturgical calendar gives us time to consider whether our lives are going in a direction we can be proud of, whether our lived lives are an valuable addition to the world we care about or not. So will the text of our lives be read in the generations to come or as we pass into eternity will we also be forgotten, no stories remembered with warmth and love, no wisdom or behaviour of ours held close to those still in the world? Our legacy does not have to be high profile or high achieving. But how we lived our lives should matter.

vati grave

illustration is the grave of Walter Rothschild in Jewish Cemetery Lausanne