“Judaism and the Story of the Convert” by Lauren Shaps
Hey to the Chevra,
I have great news to share! Our son Hillel and daughter-in-law Naomi gave birth to a baby boy last week. The baby isn’t named until the brit (circumcision), which will take place on the day this Ramble arrives in your inbox. Since I’m writing a few days earlier, I don’t yet know the baby’s name.
Our rabbis explain that when the parents choose a name for their child, they have a moment of lower-level prophecy, which we call ruach hakodesh. Thus every person's name has great significance and is a window into their character. While I don’t yet know the baby’s name, I can share a little about the parent’s names, Hillel and Naomi.
Where do we find the name Naomi in our Torah? It's in the Megilla of Ruth. Naomi was an extraordinary woman who was not just the mother-in-law but the guide and inspiration to Ruth on her journey from life in Moab to life in Israel, from paganism to Judaism, and from a focus on concrete reality to a transcendent belief and trust in the Almighty.
Naomi's husband, Elimelech, was a leader in the land of Israel before the building of the first Temple. He decided to take his family and leave Israel for Moab because of a harsh famine in Israel. There his two sons married Moabite princesses. Elimelech is criticized for abandoning both the land of Israel and the Jewish people at a difficult time. His wife, Naomi, had little choice but to go along with his decisions, yet managed to retain a clear sense of personal identity. After the death of Elimelech and her two sons, Naomi decides to return to Israel. Her two daughters-in-law begin to travel with her, but only Ruth completes the journey, not just to Israel, but to Judaism and to become a person of deep and immense faith.
Ruth has the merit to be the great-grandmother of King David. The life of her spiritual mentor, Naomi, reminds us that one can head in the wrong direction (i.e., Moab) but then turn things around. We see from Naomi the importance of developing a strong sense of personal identity and a personal mission so wherever our journey takes us, we are clear about the direction in which we are heading.
Hillel was one of the greatest of sages. He lived at the time of Herod, at the turn of the first millennium. Hillel is known for caring deeply about others. One Talmudic tale tells of Hillel and the would-be convert who asked to learn the whole Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel's famous response – "Do not do to others what is hateful to you. The rest is commentary. Now go and learn." – has been passed down as a fundamental teaching of Judaism.
From Naomi we learn the importance of having a clear sense of self. From Hillel we learn the supreme importance of our relationships with others.
In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Sages 1:4), Hillel shares an insight into life that is simply stunning. He states, "If I am not for myself who will be for me? If I am only for myself what am I? And If not now, when?!" Hillel’s statement refers to that core identity Naomi had that put her back on the right track at the first moment she could return to her mission. Each of us must develop a clear sense of who we are and what we stand for. No one else will take charge of our growth. Time and effort spent developing a Jewish core will anchor us in a world of great challenges, a society where values change almost as quickly as the seasons.
But Judaism isn't only about one's own personal journey. As the story of the convert indicates, we are also responsible to remember the other passengers along for the trip. We are always balancing between our relationship with self and our relationship with others. Hillel tells us that we should never be so other-focused that we lose our sense of self. Nor should we be so self-focused that we forget about the others.
And those are important lessons parents must learn and then convey to their children. Every relationship is a delicate balance of retaining one’s unique personal identity while at the same time developing close connections with others.
We hope and pray that this little boy (and his big sister Esti) will join his parents on their journey of spiritual and emotional growth; that they will share a life of joy, purpose and meaning, clarity of self and deep connection with each other and with the Almighty. And as we say at the Brit Milah, may he, our new grandson, grow to Torah, to chupah (marriage) and to good deeds.
Mazel Tov and Shabbat Shalom,