Sunday, June 22, 2008

Windows of Opportunity

Jerusalem is not only in the capital of the State of Israel but also the capital of the Jewish People. And as such, Jews from all over the world come to visit here. Many of those coming have no idea of what being a Jew really means. For them, being a Jew is a label that they carry. If being a Jew means belonging to a certain religion, then it is a religion which they know almost nothing about. What's worse, the version of Judaism that they were exposed to is usually a mixture of all kinds of other doctrines sprinkled with Jewish ritual which is both watered down and dehydrated at the same time. If being a Jew is being part of an ethnic group, well who really cares? Is chopped liver better than pizza or chicken chow mein?

Since the days of the Holy Temple the inhabitants of Jerusalem have had the privilege and obligation to host Jews that come from all over Israel and all over the world. Since I've set my home up here in the holy city I have done my best to be part of this tradition. Over twenty five years ago Jewish families opened their homes and hearts to me and gave me the chance to see what Judaism was all about. By opening up my home I "return the favor" and fulfill the mitzvah of hospitality, a tradition going all the way back to Abraham and Sarah.

Often our guests are "one timers". They came to Israel on a special program like "Birthright" for an intensive week or two, and we never see or hear from them again. They are usually greatly impressed by what they have seen on their trip. Seeing Jews living as nation in their own land, the land of the Bible, is a stark contrast to the Diaspora experience where Jews are at best a tolerated and at worst a hated minority. Seeing Jerusalem's Friday traffic being replaced by almost empty streets on Shabbat brings about an appreciation of the holiness of the Sabbath which is difficult to attain when living among the gentiles.

These young visitors may not know it, but a window of opportunity has been opened for them. They have been given a chance to understand what being a Jew is really all about! The gates of the land of Israel have been opened for them. The gates of Torah have been opened for them. Will they enter? Will they be able to break away from the inertia of the life plans that they have already made? Will they be able to give the boot to seeking material gratification in search of something much higher? Will they return to their "hometowns", where the chance of assimilation is high, or will they "re-Jewvinate" themselves and hook up with their nation?

Their situation reminds me of what is described in the first chapter of the Book of Ruth. Naomi, after losing her husband and two sons, decides to return to her home in Bethlehem. Her Moabite daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah accompany her on the way. Naomi tells them that they are better off staying in Moab:
And Naomi said: 'Turn back, my daughters; why will ye go with me? have I yet sons in my womb, that they may be your husbands? Turn back, my daughters, go your way; for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say: I have hope, should I even have an husband to-night, and also bear sons; would ye tarry for them till they were grown? would ye shut yourselves off for them and have no husbands? nay, my daughters; for it grieveth me much for your sakes, for the hand of the LORD is gone forth against me.'

Orpah listens and heads back. Ruth however is not willing. The time that she spent with Naomi and her family has changed her.
And Ruth said: 'Entreat me not to leave thee, and to return from following after thee; for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God; where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried; the LORD do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me.'

Everyone knows that Ruth merited being the "Mother of Monarchy" in that King David was her great grandson. Less well known is Orpah's fate. The rabbis say that she descended to the depths of depravity. I'll spare you the details.

I imagine if Orpah knew what the future held, she probably would have gone the extra mile like Ruth. Unfortunately for her, when the window of opportunity was open she failed to take advantage of it. Ruth had the wisdom and courage to cling to her mother in law and her God, for which she was richly rewarded.

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