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Shavuot: Does the Book of Ruth Matter?
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Remember how the Abram story begins with a man and three children? The man is Terah, and the three children are Abram, Nahor and Haran. The other story I am thinking about ten generations earlier also begins with a father and three children. Remember how tragedy strikes one of the children in Abram’s story? Haran dies young in the presence, in the face of his father? In that other story, tragedy strikes one of the children too. That tragedy also takes place in the face or in the presence of the father. Remember how right after that tragedy happens in the Abram’s story, the two remaining children jump into action, to try to rectify the damage somehow? That happens too in the earlier story. And remember how in order to rectify the damage, Abram and Nahor took wives, vayikach Avram v’Nachor lahem nashim? That language, vayikach, is exactly the same language that describes how the two children ten generations earlier tried to rectify the damage. Not only that, remember how the Abram and Nahor story ends with the death of Terah; the death of the grandfather? That other story ten generations earlier also ends with the death of progenitor and those three sons. And one last thing, remember how the family is headed somewhere in Abram’s story? Where are they headed? The land of Canaan. Well you know where the land of Canaan gets its name. It gets its name from a person, a person who lived in that other story ten generations earlier. What is that other story? It’s the story of Noah and the Vineyard. The story of takes place in Genesis chapter 9. It’s the story immediately preceding the Tower of Babel.
The grandfather, his name is Noah. The children, Shem, Ham and Japheth. These are the people who leave the Ark after the great flood. But tragedy happens to one of these three children. In the Abram story, Haran dies; in the Noah story, Ham doesn’t die, but his legacy is destroyed. He and his child, a child by the name of Canaan, are cursed by Noah, cursed to become servants to the other brothers, Shem and Japheth because of something that happens in the presence of father.
Noah becomes drunk after the flood, Ham invades his private chambers and sees his nakedness. When Noah wakes up from his drunken sleep, he realizes what happened and he curses Ham’s child, with this curse of slavery. Just as this tragedy was unfolding, the two other brothers had acted. Vayikach shem vayefet et-hasimlah – “they had taken a cloak”, vayasimu al-shechem shneihem – “and placed it on their shoulders”, vayichlu achoranit– “and they walked backwards”, vayechsu et ervat avihem – “they covered the nakedness of their father, they restored his dignity.” The story ends with the death of Noah, just like the later story ends with the death of Terah. The story seems so similar, it’s easy to overlook the one glaring way in which they differ.
If you look at the redemptive act right at the center of the story, of the two children who tried to rectify the situation, to somehow make it better; in so many ways that act is similar. It’s an act of two children, it’s an act signified by vayikach. But, ask yourself these questions, “Who is the act of these two children designed to help?” Abram and Nahor when they took wives, they were helping to preserve the legacy of their dead brother Haran. They were helping their brother. Who were Shem and Japheth helping? They were helping their father. And what of their brother, their brother’s whose name is cursed in this story, whose legacy is destroyed; he gets no help at all. Father is covered by a cloak, meanwhile the progeny of Ham is cursed. His legacy withers away. There is a remarkable language pattern in the text that actually makes this clear.
Look at the verse that describes the act of Shem and Japheth. If you read it over and over again, there are letter patterns that appear over and over again in the words. Can you pick them out? Listen carefully. Vayikach shem vayefet et-hasimlah vayasimu al-shechem shneihem… Vayikach shem vayefet et-hasimlah vayasimu al-shechem shneihem… shem, simlah, vayasimu, shechem, shneihem… shem, simlah, vayasimu, shechem, shneihem, you hear it over and over again, it’s shin-mem, shin-mem, shin-mem. What does that spells? It spells “Name”. But if you look carefully at this letter pattern, it’s not just that shem appears over and over again; there is a pattern in how the shin-mem occurrence appears. Do you see the pattern? What if I arrange the texts like this? Now do you see it? Or how about like this? Do you see it now? Or how about like this? Do you see it now?
The first time appears, shin and mem together, the next time it appears, shin and mem together. But, there is a small letter, a yud, interpolating itself between the shin and the mem. And then there is a larger letter, a chaf, between the shin and the mem. Then there is three whole letters, nun, yud, and hay between the shin and mem. What is happening to the shin and mem? What is happening to the shem? It’s slowly being torn apart. There’s a shem that’s fraying, that’s fragmenting in this story. Who is shem? It’s the name of Ham.
Shem and Japheth act, they act to preserve the dignity of their father. But even as they act, there was nothing they can or will do to help their brother Ham. Even as they act in the shame of Ham that’s silently being destroyed, his legacy is being destroyed; his child and all children after him are being cursed to be slaves. He is not dead like Haran is, but he is as good as dead. He is being destroyed by the curse of his father Noah. The brothers Shem and Japheth helped, they helped father; but the brother whose name is cursed for generations, there is nothing they can or will do. His legacy is quietly being destroyed.
And now, fast forward ten generations later. Ten generations later we meet Abram and his attempt with Nahor to rescue the name of their brother. Ham was as good as dead ten generations later, Haran is in fact dead. But despite that, Abram and Nahor undertakes the quest to revive his faith in Shem. And now, let’s take a look at the words. Do you see any shin-mem patterns here?
Vayikach Avram v’Nachor lahem nashim shem eshet-Avram Sarai v’shem eshet-Nachor Milkah – “Abram and Nahor has taken wives. The name of one Sarai, the name of the other Milcah.” Do you see the pattern? Do you see it now? Shin and mem with two letters in between. Shin and mem with a yud in between, Shin and mem together, shin and mem together. What is happening? A name is being stitched back together. Abram and Nahor are helping their brother reviving his threatened shem, allowing it to flourish once more. Ten generations before Abram and Nahor, there was Shem and Japheth. What about ten generations before that? Do we find something similar?
Ten generations before Shem and Japheth we arrive at Adam and Chavah, Adam and Eve themselves, and their children. Was there a threatened name in that story? Someone who dies before their time? There surely was. There was blood crying out from the ground, desperate to be heard, but a brother stands by and does nothing. It’s the story of Cain and Abel.
Cain kills Abel, but that’s not his greatest evil. No one ever killed anybody before. Cain was angry, he hit him; Abel died. But the great evil of Cain comes just a moment later when God says, Ei hevel achich– “where has Abel gone?” to which Cain responds, Hashomer achi anochi? – “Am I my brother’s keeper?” That was the wrong answer. “You don’t know where your brother is? You don’t know what happen to him? You see him laying motionless in a pool of blood on the floor. You should be screaming “what can I do? How can I help? What can be done?” Instead, you’re apathetic, you don’t care. You are not sure if you are your brother’s keeper. All of the children that would have come from Abel, that’s is all gone! You didn’t just kill one man, you killed a line of humanity that would have gone for generations. What would be with the name of your brother?” Did anyone act to save the threatened legacy of Hevel? Cain didn’t act; but someone did. It was Adam and Chavah, Adam and Eve themselves. Because after the death of Abel, Adam and Eve have a third child, his name is Seth. Ki shat-li Elokim zera acher – tachat hevel ki harogo kain – “Because God has established other seeds for me, other children for me in place of Abel, because Cain had killed him.” Seth is the spiritual continuance of Abel, he keeps Abel’s name alive throughout the generations. It’s the very first yibum like act in the Torah, but it’s an act not undertaken by brother, but undertaken by parents, because a brother wouldn’t act. Do you see the pattern here?
In the very first generation of mankind, tragedy strikes one brother, another brother stands silently by, so parents act to help the threatened child. Ten generations later, tragedy strikes another child, this time the brothers are not silent, they do act, but they act to help parent, they do not act to help brother. Parents help child, or child helps parents, but brothers never help brothers until another ten generations go by and we meet Terah and his three sons, and this time, brothers help brothers. And that is the birth of the people of Israel; that’s the mission statement. Your brother is in need, you help him. It seems impossible? You find a way. Your obligation is to parents; yes. Your parent’s obligation is to you; yes. But your obligation is also toward brother. There is something about that relationship between brothers; you love them, or perhaps rivalry seeps into the relationship, but the rivalry must be conquered. At the end of the day, when your brother is in need, he is your brother, and you must be there for him. Ah, but now of course, there is one last question I am need to ask.
Ever ten generations, there is an iteration of this cycle, it happens with Adam and Eve. Ten generations after Cain and Abel, meet Shem and Japheth, ten generations after them, we meet Abram and Nahor, each is a yibum like act, each a somewhat more perfected version of the previous one; what do we find ten generations later? Well, it’s time to do a little counting, starting with Abram. Abram gives birth to Isaac; that’s generation number one, who gives birth to Jacob; that’s two, who gives birth to Judah; that’s three, who gives birth to Peretz; four, Hezron, Ram, Amminadab; five, six and seven, Anminadad gives birth to Nahshon; that’s eight, Nahshon to Salmon; that’s nine, and Salmon gives birth to Boaz; that’s generation ten. Welcome to the Book of Ruth.
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