Parashat Bemidbar/ Shavuot
June 11, 2016 – 5 Sivan 5776
Annual (Numbers 1:1-4:20): Etz Hayim p. 769; Hertz p. 568
Triennial (Numbers 3:14-4:20): Etz Hayim p. 779; Hertz p. 576
Haftarah (Hosea 2:1-22): Etz Hayim p. 787; Hertz p. 582
Ruth – A Short Story of Kindness
Vered Hollander-Goldfarb, CY Faculty
I love the book of Ruth that is read on Shavuot, I try not to miss a word. No, it is not a happy story (although the ending is good), but it is a story of people (and maybe even God) doing a little extra for others. It is a story of gentle touches of chesed (loving-kindness).
The story opens with a quick decline; famine, illness, death of the men in the family. The women left are poor, with little hope for improving their lot. Walking back to Bethlehem might be a natural move for Naomi, but hardly so for Ruth, her Moabite daughter-in-law. Despite repeated efforts on Naomi’s part, Ruth refuses to leave her, taking upon herself complete immersion in Naomi’s nation and God (today we might call that conversion). When the once-well off Naomi returns home as a pauper, she is not facing the gossiping town people alone (chapter 1).
No one takes great interest in Naomi’s situation after the initial curiosity that her arrival caused. Having no means to support themselves, Ruth and Naomi have to rely on the leftovers gathered in the fields, a back-breaking task, fraught with risks of insults and harassment. Ruth knows that the collecting has to be done, but Naomi is not up to it. Rather than take charge, she asks Naomi’s permission to allow her to perform this unpleasant task, thus allowing Naomi to maintain her dignity and an illusion of her position as the matriarch who has the final authority.
In the field Ruth seems to meet her match at discreet kindness: Boaz, a wealthy land-owner notices the foreigner in his field. He has done his homework, he knows the story. The help he offer seems minor – protection from harassment. But he instructs his workers to make sure she has plenty to collect (chapter 2). When the story seems ‘stuck’ and the future seems gloomy, it is Naomi who devises a plan to guarantee Ruth’s future (chapter 3). And where is God? He seems to do His share by making sure that things happen at the right place and at the right time for these people who go beyond what is required of them – who do acts of chesed (loving-kindness).
This is the story that was chosen to be read on the day that Jewish tradition associated with receiving the Torah. In Midrash Ruth Rabba (2:14) Rabbi Za’ira wonders: ‘This Megilla has no laws… so why was it written? To teach you how great is the reward of those who do acts of chesed (loving-kindness).’ Our Torah is not only about Law, it is about doing a little extra, beyond the requirement of the Law.
So, what is the happy ending? Ruth and Boaz marry and have a child that Naomi adopts (he is almost her grandchild!). That child is King David’s grandfather. The rabbis refer to Ruth, the Moabite convert, as ‘the mother of royalty.’
A Vort for Parashat Bemidbar
Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb, CY Faculty
The Haftarah from Hosea opens with the promise that the people of Israel will be numerous like the sands of the sea (כְּחוֹל הַיָּם), recalling God’s promise to Abraham (Gen 15:5) that they would be as numerous as the stars in the heavens. A leading Musar writer explained that stars need space; if two actually make contact, they can be damaged or destroyed. Grains of sand, on the other hand, need the contact and support of each other; if they are alone the sea washes them away easily. So it is with Am Yisrael, it is strongest when all are connected together. Jews like to be stars; but there are times when we should also be grains of sand.
Vered Hollander-Goldfarb, CY Faculty
We are starting the fourth book of the Torah, Numbers, known in Hebrew as Bemidbar (after its opening Parasha). In this Parasha the focus is on a census taken a year after leaving Egypt, in preparation to entering the Land of Israel. On Sunday and Monday we will celebrate Shavuot, during which the book of Ruth is read, hence some question on it.
1) The book of Bemidbar includes 2 censuses of the people. Who is counted and what is the purpose of this count (1:2-3)? Who is not counted (1:48-50)? Why is this group not included with the rest? What might this teach us about assigning value to different kinds of service?
2) The story of Ruth opens in the period of the Judges with a famine in the land. How do people cope with a famine (1:1)? Note the irony of the name of the place that suffers of the famine (lehem= bread/food).
3) Naomi, who has lost her husband and both sons while living in Moab (1:3-5) chooses to return to Bethlehem. Her Moabite daughters-in-laws, Ruth and Orpah go with her. 1:8-17 contains the conversation Naomi has with Ruth and Orpah. Does she want them to come along? Why? Could there be another reason as well for Naomi’s discomfort with the situation?
4) What happens when Naomi and Ruth arrive in Bethlehem (1:19-22)? How do the people of the town treat them? What do you think they mean by the question “is that Naomi?!!”? What should the people who had know the family previously ask, but they do not?
5) A quick glance at the wedding blessings that the congregation gives Boaz upon his marriage to Ruth (4:11-12): What biblical characters are involved, and why are these characters chosen? (Bereshit/Genesis 29:31-30:24 and chapter 38 can give you some background.)