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Rabbi Ari Ellis

Rabbi Ari Ellis: Our Future As Jewish Community in Winnipeg-The Lessons of Ruth and Esther: A Journey Back to the Basics

If you’re wondering whether your grandchildren will be Jewish, the studies and surveys all predict that if you’re not observant, the answer is likely no.

Rabbi Ari Ellis, June 15, 2013

It’s quite striking to contrast the Megillot that bracket our spring festivals. Winter comes to an end, at least outside of Winnipeg, around Purim with the Scroll of Esther and summer begins around Shavuot when we read the Scroll of Ruth. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin explains that on Purim we read of a vulnerable and assimilated Jewish community in exile, whereas on Shavuot we read the story of Ruth, a woman who returns to the Land of Israel, embraces Judaism, and sets in motion a chain of events that will one day give rise to our ultimate redemption.

I believe that a brief study of these two stories can help us shed light on the priorities we need to set for the future of our own community. First of all, the entire story of Esther takes place in Persia, in exile, outside of the Land of Israel in a time when the Jewish People had the opportunity to return to Israel but chose not to. The story of Ruth begins in Israel, moves to Moab, where Elimelech and his family suffer greatly, but Ruth ultimately returns home with Naomi to Bethlehem.

The Megillot we read on these two holidays both feature a heroic woman. But Esther has her Hebrew name changed from “Hadassah” to the Persian “Esther” (from the Persian word for star alluding to the goddess Astarte). In Megillat Ruth, Elimelech’s sons are called Machlon and Kilyon, which literally mean sickness and destruction, aptly summing up their experience of assimilation, intermarriage, and ultimately death in Moab.

Megillat Ruth is the story of Jews who leave exile and return to Israel. Ruth embraces Judaism leaving her family behind to return with Naomi to Bethlehem. On the other hand, Esther leaves her Jewish home to live with a Gentile King in order to save her people. But the salvation she achieves is only short lived.

Purim is celebrated by drinking until "we can no longer distinguish between praising Mordecai and cursing Haman." Shavuot, however, is celebrated by bringing our First Fruits to the Temple in Jerusalem, singing praises to God, and staying up all night learning Torah. Apparently the path towards ultimate redemption is to be found by following in the footsteps of Naomi and Ruth, rather than Mordechai and Esther.

And if that’s true, Ruth’s choices should inform our priorities as a community. The values that she embraced and sacrificed for should guide our synagogues, schools, and communal institutions in ensuring a bright future for our children and grandchildren.

Our community faces many challenges: apathy, assimilation, intermarriage, declining synagogue affiliation, lack of intense Jewish education, and decreased Jewish observance, just to name a few. In fact, if you’re wondering whether your grandchildren will be Jewish, the studies and surveys all predict that if you’re not observant, the answer is likely no.

Since the early 1800’s we have constantly been grappling with the question of how to keep Judaism relevant in a mostly secular world.  Many have suggested to “water down” Judaism so that it demands less of us, assuming that if it's easier, it’ll be more attractive. But history has proven that few, if any, have become more committed as a result.

Rabbi Marc Angel (in his Angel for Shabbat column) explains that at the root of our decline is a loss of a sense of Kedushah, of holiness. People today are generally more concerned with pursuing their own lives and their own interests than in serving God. But it’s not about what Judaism has to offer me, how being Jewish will make my life better, or what’s in it for me. It’s about what I can offer others.

Studies have been commissioned. Conferences are organized. Countless meetings are held locally, nationally, and internationally. But few have offered the right diagnosis to the challenges we face. But the answer is obvious. The cure, Rabbi Angel explains, is to take Judaism more seriously, to reconnect with God, and to infuse our lives with the fullness of Jewish learning, observance, and tradition.

But many leaders in our community don't want to diagnose our problems, let alone consider the suggested treatment. They prefer short cuts. They want quick and easy ways to feel Jewish on their own terms. Holiness, commitment to Torah, and observance of Mitzvot, are not on the community’s agenda. They want a religion that’s convenient, feels good, and doesn’t make too many demands. Not only is this approach superficial, it’s self-defeating, threatening the very foundation of our community.

We don't need more "gimmicks" or quick-fixes. We don’t need services that start later and end earlier. We don’t need less Hebrew. We don’t need fun and games, though there’s nothing wrong with that on occasion. What we do need, as Rabbi Angel suggests, is serious and long-term nurturing of our souls and our spirits. That’s what Judaism has to offer, if we take the time and effort to make it the focus of our lives, just like Ruth did so many years ago.

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Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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