November 25, 2020

Shavuot in a Heightened State of Grace

By Rabbis Wendy Amsellem and Mike Moskowitz

Chen is sometimes hard to describe but we know it when we see it. It is that extra measure of grace that makes a person or an action especially appealing. Chen elevates the ordinary, exceeds our expectations, and inspires us to be more graceful as well.

It is perhaps because grace transcends the natural limitations that it is so difficult to articulate and achieve. In our tradition, the number seven represents the spectrum of the natural order and the cycle of the seven days of creation. From Passover to Shavuot, we count seven weeks, for a total of 49 days. This number seven, multiplied by itself, represents the greatest expression of the essence of nature. But it is only on the next day, the 50th that goes beyond these boundaries, that we are able to receive the Torah.

Like the relationship between our body and soul, the Torah is where the finite meets the infinite. Chen is spelled in Hebrew חן – the numerical value of נ = 50  and ח = 8. Both the number 50 and the number 8 exceed the regular natural order which is based on factors of 7.  Chen is above nature.

Megilat Ruth is replete with acts of chen that break natural assumptions. Ruth and Orpah, the Moabite daughters-in-law of Naomi, escort her on her way back to Bethlehem. Naomi explains that there is no future for the young women there and urges them to return to their parents’ homes in Moab. The word Moab itself has the Hebrew numerical value of 49, indicating that returning there would be the natural thing to do. Orpah makes the reasonable choice to turn back, but Ruth clings to Naomi fiercely, pledging her unswerving loyalty.

Ruth goes beyond what is expected of her, choosing not only Naomi’s company but also her God, her people, and her way of life. In truth, all Jews by choice do this – they break from the assumed rhythms of their lives and embark instead on an extraordinary path of spiritual expansion.

We read Megilat Ruth on Shavuot because Shavuot is about going beyond the letter of the law. On Shavuot, the people of Israel break with their previous patterns of behavior and perform the ultimate elevating act of accepting the Torah. In doing so, they model the kabbalat mitzvot, accepting of commandments, that is traditionally the most essential part of the conversion process.

Boaz also exceeds expectations. As a field owner, he is obligated in the mitzvah of leket, allowing the poor to pick up sheaves dropped by his gleaners. Boaz not only performs the basic mitzvah of leket, but he instructs his workers to drop extra sheaves (Ruth 2:16) so that Ruth can collect them. He takes notice of Ruth, a defenseless stranger, and he speaks kindly to her. Ruth responds to him by asking (Ruth 2:10), “Why have I found chen in your eyes, even though I am a stranger?” Boaz explains that he has heard of her devotion to Naomi and then he blesses Ruth. She responds, (Ruth 2:13) “May I find chen in your eyes sir because you have comforted me and spoken to my heart.”

Ruth understands Boaz’s behavior to be motivated by chen. He is showing her kindness above and beyond expectation. Boaz replies that his acts of chen are directly in response to Ruth’s extraordinary behavior.

Boaz uses Abraham-like language to describe Ruth, saying to her, (Ruth 2:11) “It has been told to me. . .how you left your father, your mother, and the land of your birth to go to a nation that you did not know.” Abraham is the first and most potent example of a person leaving their expected life to go forth on a spiritual journey. By veering from the norm, Abraham is the model for all of his spiritual descendents, converts who leave their former lives to follow the God of Abraham. As Maimonides says in his letter to Ovadiah the Convert, “Whoever converts . . .is counted among the disciples of Abraham our father.”

How does a person make these choices and acquire this state of grace? The Gra (Rabbi Elijah of Vilna, 1720-1797) explains that chen comes from the language of chenam (free). One cannot buy chen. Rather it, like the Torah, is a gift from G-d, for those who choose to exert themselves. By giving freely of ourselves to others and offering more than is expected of us, we emulate G-d and are imbued with Divine grace.

The MidrashTanchuma, a collection of early rabbinic homiletic teachings, observes that in the Book of Ruth, except for eight verses, every verse begins with the Hebrew letter vav. These eight non-vav verses highlight Ruth’s connection to the number eight and her journey to the supernatural. She goes above and beyond the physical, for the sake of the spiritual. Even her name רות, with a numerical value of 606, alludes to this. Ruth chooses to add 606 additional commandments to the basic seven Noahide laws, (the seven commandments given to Noah and his descendants), so that in the end she accepts the 613 commandments of the Torah.

Men are often taught that to be responsible one must respectfully follow the rules, but in truth, it is not nearly enough. Systems are maintained by people continuing to do what people have done and expected in the past. Societal constructions of gender and their roles perpetuate assumptions as norms that actually limit and distort our true purpose and potential. We must expect more if things are ever going to improve.

It is especially challenging to strive for chen because it feels amorphous. Every year Shavuot invites us to re-experience the beyond.  By adopting a stance of generosity and pushing above standard expectations, we can all experience, and emerge from, Shavuot in a heightened state of grace.

Rabbi Wendy Amsellem teaches Talmud and Halakha at Yeshivat Maharat. (Pronouns: she/hers)

 

 

 

Rabbi Mike Moskowitz is a Scholar-in-Residence in Trans and Queer Jewish Studies at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York. (Pronouns: He/Him)

Comments

  1. Simon says:

    Beautiful. Thank you.

  2. Rafaela Anshel says:

    Beautiful teaching.

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