Shavuot

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

"And it came to pass in the days when the Judges judged..."

With these words the Book of Ruth begins. The story of a Moabite priestess who converts to Judaism, from whom the Davidic dynasty emerges and consequently the Messiah himself will emerge, it is read on Shavuot to remind us all that our own ancestors were as well "converts" to Judaism at Mt. Sinai. Ruth's devotion to Faith and kin is an inspiration for each of us to be ever vigilant in ensuring that our own Jewish commitment always remains vibrant, fresh and imbued with love for our fellow human being.

The very first words of this moving story encapsulate the times in which Ruth lived. Rabbi Yochanan in the Midrash applies the following quote from The Book of Psalms to those beginning words, "Listen my people and I shall speak... From this we learn that we cannot guide another if the capacity to listen is absent." We are left with the obvious question - true as Rabbi Yochanan's observation is, what does it have to do with the opening line of the Book of Ruth?

The answer lies in looking at the previous comment of the Midrash. On the words Shafot HaShoftim, which we have translated when the Judges judged, the Midrash translates when the people judged their Judges, that is the people judged the ways of their own judges. The Torah Tmima presents an argument to back up this interpretation. If the Book of Ruth was attempting to indicate the period of time of the story, he points out, surely it could have simply stated it. The statement "in the days when the Judges judged" is ambiguous. Rather these few words describe the reality of Jewish life in Ruth's day. The people constantly brought into question their own Judges. It was a debased and immoral society that Ruth would encounter. As Rabbi Tarfon states in the Talmud Eruchin, "I would be surprised if there was anyone in that generation who would willingly accept rebuke, i.e., the guidance and direction of a Judge..."

Sound familiar? The generation described in the Book of Ruth could very well be our own. In a world where everyone has the right to do his/her own thing the concept of rebuke, for our purposes, the stating of absolute principles of moral behavior by an authority figure is rejected. Witness the many scandals we have had in recent years. Ultimately those who bring the negative behavior into question are in the end brought into question themselves. "If you have a shortcoming, who are you to criticize the next person?" is the common refrain. The result for American society has been tragic. With each scandal, with each blow to the influence of our authority figures, we cut away at the moral foundation that is the underpinning of society. Instead of confirming what the "Judges" state as a clear moral rule of conduct, we hack away at the Judges themselves and, in the end, the clarity of what is moral, what is right and honest, becomes unclear amidst the resulting acrimony. In a world where no one is willing to listen to words of rebuke, moral teaching cannot be heard.

I wrote this Torah column a day after the tragedy in a Colorado public school in which more than a score of students were murdered by fellow classmates. Almost instinctively, my mind turned toward my years in public school seeking some direction, some answer as to why such a tragedy should ever take place especially in a school.

My public school years were daily controlled by rules and regulations. Arriving at school we would line up in double file outside the school building. There we would remain in silence until the bell announced the moment when we were to enter. I vividly recall a day when a sudden shower broke. All the students remained "on line" (as we New Yorkers are prone to say) in silence, our parents standing across the street, as was the rule, not one making a move to help. The source of all this discipline, the absolute authority who controlled our lives and the lives of our parents in regard to our education was the Principal - Grunhilda C. Bothner. There we remained, children and parents alike standing in silence in a torrential rain, until Ms. Bothner appeared on the school steps to raise her hand beckoning us to enter.

Ms. Bothner, a portly woman in her sixties ruled P.S. 247 with an iron hand. The moment she would place her glasses on, which hung from a ribbon and clipped upon her nose, to see you more clearly, your heart would palpitate. This phenomenon was common among parents as well. A visit to her office was a terrifying experience. Absolute silence reigned. Coming before her desk one trembled. What was the source of her amazing power over student and parent alike? Simply she was the principal - her decisions and views were never to be questioned. She was the later day "Judge" who could and did use the power of rebuke to guide and direct the school. In retrospect I'm sure I could find much in Ms. Bothner's view of education and of life for that matter which I believe to be inappropriate or wrong. Yet such a thought never entered my mind in those days. Frankly, it was just as alien to the parents as well.

To her credit Ms. Bothner created an environment in which moral and ethical behavior were taught and strengthened, a world in which there was the right and the wrong way, the right way always synonymies with Ms. Bothner's view. Cleanliness, the work ethic, honesty, reliability and moral virtue, then commonly referred to as the "Protestant ethic" were the tools by which a person created a productive and meaningful life. And we believed in them because Ms. Bothner said they were correct. She was our "Judge"; a judge who was beyond questioning.

Is this the answer to the ills of American society? Of course not! Life is far too complex for so simple an answer. Nevertheless, there is no doubt in my mind that the question of moral authority and its role in society is a significant one for the American People. On this Shavuot Holy Day when each of us once again accepts G‑d's Laws upon ourselves; laws which we characterize in our liturgy as, "they are our life and the length of our days" we would do well to ponder the question of who in fact are our personal "Judges," able to provide us with true rebuke, true moral direction? Perhaps this is the first step in responding to the tragedies of today.