When Choosing God Isn’t Practical
Is a relationship with God worth it? Shavuot supplies the answer.
Recently, I met a woman who was devastated over the fact that her only son had married a non-Jewish woman. She shared with me what she considered the defining moment of her life. She and her husband were happily residing in New York, when her husband was offered a position with double the salary and quadruple the prestige of his current job. The only catch was that they would have to move to a small Midwestern town with a non-existent Jewish population.
“At the time, my son was about five years old. My husband and I agonized over the decision for weeks. Did we want to leave our families, and the big city life? How would we adjust to a new culture? What would we lose and what would we gain?
“Among our many considerations, I also thought about the fact that our son would have no Jewish peers and would grow up with no reinforcement to his Judaism. I remember pausing in my list making – and dashing that down on the con side of the paper – where it was quickly outweighed by all the pros.
"On the evening my husband sent out his formal acceptance of the offer we cracked open a bottle of champagne and drank to our exciting new adventure. Little did we know that we were merrily drinking to the culmination of the long line of illustrious Jews on both sides of our families, whose end would come about through the decision of my son to do the completely understandable – marry a wonderful non-Jewish woman whom he met in his predominantly non-Jewish college after a comfortably unruffled-by-Judaism childhood in a non-Jewish culture.
"That tiny voice which had niggled at me about my son not having Jewish peers – that faint stirring of my Jewish soul – was drowned out by the voice of reason (don’t give up such a great opportunity); the voice of comfort (it will probably be okay); and the voice of practicality (we’ll send him to Sunday school).”
Making Sense Doesn’t Always Make Cents
A relationship with God is often not so practical. It might ask us to give up a great career opportunity so as not to betray our value system. A friend recently left a great job because the prevailing culture of cynicism and gossip was tearing her down. It might ask of us to extend ourselves to give ten percent of our income to charity – when our budget is tight for our own family and we really don’t really feel like being generous. There were times in our history where choosing a relationship with God meant facing up to inquisitions and crusades.
And besides the lack of drum rolls and benefits, choosing a relationship with God does not guarantee a life surrounded by a cloud of glory. Not only is the world often unaware of our heroic decision, we ourselves can easily forget why we actually chose to be in this difficult situation. The momentary clarity that fueled our decision of courage often shrivels away under an avalanche of routine, forgetfulness and second-guessing.
Vive La Difference
The Book of Ruth, which we read on Shavout, is also about the difficulties in choosing a relationship with God. Ruth and Orpah, sisters and fellow Moabite princesses who had married Jewish brothers, both set out to accompany Naomi back to Canaan. Yet, only Ruth continues on with Naomi. At the border Naomi convinces Orpah to go back to Moav. It made sense, Naomi explains. There would be no practical benefit in going with Naomi, who would end up indigent and scrambling for food in a stranger’s fields. There would be no chance to remarry, no chance to rebuild – going to the future land of Israel with Naomi would mean a life of loneliness and poverty.
It wasn’t an easy decision for Orpah to make. The verse tells us that Orpah cried when Naomi tried to convince her to return. At least at first, Orpah's soul seemed to still yearn to cling to Naomi, to hold on to greatness. But in the end she listened to the logic of Naomi’s words and she left. No drums rolled, no lights flashed. Did Orpah have any idea of the ramifications of her decision?
The similarities between Ruth and Orpah – both Moabite princesses, sisters married to brothers – set this moment of difference in stark relief. Ruth and Orpah both stand at the threshold of greatness. Both wonder: should I listen to that inner yearning or turn my back? Should I do what my soul whispers or be pragmatic?
The difference between soaring and crashing is only minutes long.
Ruth decided to cling to Naomi; “Your people will be my people, your God my God.” Orpah – whose name stems from the Hebrew word oreph, which means the back of neck – made a simple, prosaic decision. The difference between soaring and crashing is only minutes long.
Hundreds of years later this tiny little difference had evolved into a clash between cultures, manifesting itself not only in the inner, hidden hearts of two sisters, but in the crashing difference in physique between their two descendants, Goliath and David. Goliath, grandchild of Orpah, huge, strong warrior, ambassador of might makes right, mocker of the inchoate voice from deep within the human soul, faces off with David, “sweet singer of Israel,” quintessential yearner, and grandson of Ruth – who chose to cling to Naomi, though it made no sense at all.
In describing this crash between antipodes, our Sages say: “May the son of the one who was kissed, fall into the hands of the one who clung [to Naomi].” Interestingly, this statement identifies Orpah as the one who was kissed, yet in the Book of Ruth, it is Orpah who does the kissing; it is she who kisses Naomi when she leaves her. Perhaps Orpah is called “the one who was kissed” because kissing represents reciprocity. One kisses and is kissed at the same time.
Orpah wasn’t a spiritual deadweight, deaf and blind to the stirrings of her soul for the closeness to God which Naomi represented. She had been kissed – her soul had soared with the possibilities of what could be – if she was willing to take the plunge. But in the end practicalities won over. Orpah turned her back and closed the door.
Our sages tell us that Orpah's inner struggle left its mark in other ways as well: the 40 steps that Orpah took to accompany Naomi were returned to her when Goliath was granted a 40-day reprieve from David and the four tears she cried, resulted in the four great warriors who descended from her. Greatness, so close at hand for Orpah, had been thwarted. And greatness – which has been sidetracked and missed the mark – produces greatness that has been sidetracked and misses the mark.
Shavuot is a day when God holds out His hand and offers us a chance to enter into that scary place called relationship – where the goal is closeness to God, not necessarily practical benefit.
A student of mine who became more Jewishly observant shared with me how she sometimes rethinks her decision. Life has not been a bed of roses for her. By starting to observe Shabbat she strained her relationship with her parents almost to the breaking point, she gave up a promising relationship with a young man because she realized he was moving in the wrong direction spiritually, the community she moved into was not the picture perfection she had thought they were when she was on the outside looking in. Was it worth it? she wonders.
On the days when she thinks it wasn’t, she feels angry. Why didn’t they warn me that things would be this hard? Why did I have to complicate my life so much? Why did I believe all that warm and fuzzy stuff when life is not warm and fuzzy most of the time?
This is not about comfort; it's about a willingness to listen to the whisper of the soul.
But on Shavuot things always become very clear to her: a relationship with God is worth it. This is not about comfort; it's about a willingness to listen to the whisper of the soul, a reminder to our pragmatic self to stop making so much noise because there is an entirely other level of existence which while it can't compete in volume, splashes our lives with light.
The Sinai Revelation was an invitation to take the leap into that joyful (and scary) place – relationship with God. When the Jewish people made the Golden Calf, God, using the same root word that forms Orpah's name, calls the Jewish nation “keshui oreph” – back turners. At the crunch minute, we took the easy way out and turned away from relationship to worship an idol, who made no demands.
But each year on Shavuot, the gates are wide open, again. It is true that Orpah turned her back, but Ruth, progenitor of Messiah, stepped through the portal. There were no drum rolls, no music building to a crescendo – or at least not at a decibel that Ruth could hear. Just disdain, poverty, and humiliation awaited her. But in the end, God promises us “you will be Holy, because I am Holy.” It may not be practical, easy or always make sense, but in the end, Ruth – whose name means satiated – chose life.
A version of this article appeared in Mishpacha magazine.