Nature vs. Nurture: Does Yichus or Individual Choice Win Out?

Yesterday I discussed with you different Midrashim on the giving of the Torah and from it different ways we can view the Torah’s impact on our lives.  Today I would like to shift to discussing a book from our tradition that we read today: The Book of Ruth.

I will begin with a brief summary, mostly of Chapter 1.  Ruth is a Moabite married to one of two brothers, Machlon and Chilyon, both of whom mysteriously pass away.  The brothers’ father had also died but his wife, Naomi, was still alive.  Naomi was going to leave Moab to return to Bethlehem, but her daughters-in-law would not leave her side.  With persistence she gets her daughter-in-law Orpah to leave but her other daughter-in-law, Ruth, refuses to leave, stating “Your people shall be my people and your God shall be my God.”  Ruth returns to Bethlehem with Naomi, where she marries a man named Boaz and lives the rest of her life.

This story is very peculiar me for a few reasons.  First, Ruth is not only a non-Israelite but a Moabite, one of the enemy nations of the Israelites.  In Deuteronomy 23:4 it states, “An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter into the Assembly of the LORD; even to the tenth generation shall none of them enter the Assembly of the LORD forever.”  This verse explicitly states that a Moabite can never become an Israelite, and yet here we have Ruth saying, “Your people shall be my people and your God shall be my God”-the ultimate conversion to Judaism and acceptance of Torah.  What makes the situation even more interesting is that we find out at the end of Chapter 4 that Ruth is the great-grandmother of King David, not only our greatest king ever but also the ancestor of our future Messiah.

The first question to answer is why is there so much hostility towards Moabites?  Yesterday I brought in a Midrash which mentioned that the Ammonites would not accept the Torah because it says one cannot commit adultery, and their essence (or origin) is adultery.  This is referring to Genesis 19, where Lot escapes from Sodom with his daughters while the city is destroyed.  They went to a cave where to their knowledge they were the only people alive, as their homeland, Sodom, was destroyed.  The daughters each give Lot wine to drink, and when he was asleep they lay with him.  Each daughter gave birth-one called her son “Ben Ammi,” meaning “son of my nation,” and he is the ancestor of the Ammonites, and the other called her son “Moab,” meaning “from my father,” and he is the ancestor of the Moabites, Ruth’s people.  This etiological story of an illicit union forming enemy nations is a source for Israelite hatred of the Moabites, which is why it is interesting that King David’s great grandmother was a Moabite herself.

Even more fascinating is the fact that this is not the only incestual union in David’s lineage.  In Genesis 38, we learn of Judah’s son Er being the husband of Tamar but then mysteriously passing away.  Judah’s second son, Onan, then becomes Tamar’s husband (through the laws of Levirite marriage) and also passes away.  The third son is withheld from Tamar, who in an effort to remarry and become pregnant dresses up as a prostitute and seduces Judah, her father in law.  Out of this illicit union come two twins, one of whom is Peretz, a 10th generation ancestor of King David.

We thus observe two incestual unions in the lineage of our greatest king ever.  I see this as indicating that one’s lineage does not unduly impact on who a person is, but rather each individual is able to make his or her own choices.  It is true that one’s genetic makeup can create a proclivity for certain behaviors, both good and bad, in that person.  David demonstrated the courage and strong leadership of his great-grandmother Ruth and of his great-great-great grandfather Nachshon, who according to Midrash was the first to leap into the Sea of Reeds when the Egyptians were coming to destroy the Israelites.  He also engaged in at least one illicit union, the affair he had with Batsheva.  However, David was his own person, and the choices he made demonstrated an independent personality.  Similarly, the choices Ruth made to stay by her mother-in-law’s side in her time of need and leave her own people to join a foreign nation demonstrate great courage and leadership.  It demonstrates that we cannot judge people wholly by what their ancestors did or by what those around them do, as while the Moabites may have been the enemies of the Israelites, we have at least one Moabite who extended a hand and found a place in the Israelite community.  From the book of Ruth, I have gained appreciation to see each person as an individual who has something to contribute, rather than as simply a product of his/her lineage.

The same is true with Yizkor. Our parents have instilled in us proclivities and habits for both good and bad, as well as teaching us values. WE remember and are grateful for who they are/were and for the experiences we have shared with them. At the same time, each of us is our own person with our own rights and responsibilities. Let us use our limited time on earth to make positive and productive choices, as Ruth did.

I have been blessed to get to know each of you as an individual over the course of my first year in Jericho.  I have shared in beautiful conversations before the Torah reading and during Kiddush, learning from you during each one.  The warmth you have shown me since the day you received me as your Rabbi last June has been incredible, and I look forward to many more wonderful years together.

Thank you to each and every one of you for all that you do to strengthen our congregation, be it coming to minyan, serving on a committee or on our Board, giving generously of yourself and contributing to our community in so many ways.  Also, thank you for your patience with me, a newcomer to our community.  I learned so much from you and have grown in confidence with your help.  Thank you for an enriching and enjoyable year.

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