The Auntie Semite and the Jew 

By Yaacov Peterseil


Shavuot is a strange Jewish Holiday. There are no clear commandments on how to celebrate this holiday. No lulav, no shofar, no biblical dos and don’ts like the other special days in our calendar.

There are those who say that just getting the Torah makes the holiday of Shavuot special. That’s why we count the 49 days of the Omer, in anticipation of receiving the Torah on the 50th day after the Exodus. Of course, our dancing around the Golden Calf doesn’t exactly sound like a “can’t wait to get the Torah” attitude and Moses breaking God’s tablets (How do you break something made by God?) didn’t help matters.

So what makes Shavuot so important it became one of the Big Three (Sukkot, Pesach, Shavuot) that form the nucleus of our Exodus experience?

The answer may lie in the Book of Ruth, the story of the great grandmother of King David. As far as yichus (genealogy) is concerned, Ruth the Convert, who came from the accursed nation of Moav, seems, as Plony Alimony in the book indicates, to soil our lineage.

And that’s strange too. We Jews are so sensitive to intermarriage, so concerned with racial purity. We need to know who we were, who we are, and who our children are going to be. We have a job to be a light to the nations and that light is kindled by the Torah, and who got the Torah? We did. Not the Moabite nation. We. The Israelite nation.

 So what’s a Moabite doing mucking up King David’s lineage?

Such a strange way to maintain our racial purity.

Let me tell you a story.

Years ago, my roommate at the University of Michigan was a convert who taught himself Yiddish and Hebrew. He wore a beard and payot (sidelocks) and studied the works of Nietzsche and other less-than-Jewishly religious philosophers. Before we parted ways (although eventually he came back to my yeshiva with me), I asked this remarkable fellow why he, a born Baptist, whose family had a favorite aunt called Auntie Semite, why he had chosen to become a Jew. I was prepared for a philosophical discussion or at the very least a metaphysical illumination into the soul of man.

Instead, he told me as follows: 

Yaacov, when God was ready to give the Torah, He asked all the nations, “Do you want the Torah?” The nation of Moav responded with, “What’s in it?” And God said, “You should not covet your fellow man or his belongings.” The Moabites, being less than moral in thought and behavior, said, “We’ll pass!” And God moved on, so to speak.  But I believe that when God asked the nation of Moav if they would take the Torah as is, some Moabites, a very few, raised their hands and shouted “I’ll take it! I’ll take it!” But since the majority of the nation rejected the Torah, the Moabites didn’t get it, and my ancient great great grandmother, who was one of those shouting, had no choice but to remain a Moabite.

Maybe Ruth told Naomi the same thing. Maybe her “Where you go, I go…Where you sleep I sleep…Your people are my people….” soliloquy was just her way of saying, “My great grandmother couldn’t convince the others to take the Torah, but out here in the desert, with just you and me and God,  I’m ready and willing to take it -- right now!”

Under the shadow of the mountain, before we received the Torah, we were Jews but we had lost our way. Most of us were Egyptians first and Jews second. Most of us were the ultimate Diaspora Jew, who, if not happy, was certainly content with being in the hub of modern civilization. We didn’t care whether we ate Glatt Kosher or Rabbinate Kosher or trefe (non-kosher). We didn’t concern ourselves with the sanctity of anything, let alone Shabbat, and we certainly didn’t know much about what makes a Jew Jewish. We were on the 49th rung of the Ladder of  Oblivion and the elevator was still going DOWN.

But under the mountain we became renewed, reenergized, re-converted. Our genetic matter was electrified by the process of getting the Torah and we suddenly felt a sense of…Jewishness . But it cost us. We could no longer eat what we wanted or marry whom we wanted or work as many days as we wanted. We were new people with new laws and new rules and this all happened on a new day, Shavuot.

Perhaps that’s why one of the most repeated commandments in the Torah is to be sensitive to the plight of the convert, not only because we were sojourners in the land of Egypt, but because we were converts as well. We know what it’s like to be NEW.

Who knows, had we not received the Torah in the desert – away from the Egyptian Maddening crowds – alone, hopeless; a rag-tag group of refugees going who-knows-where, we might also have shouted “We’ll pass” instead of the most important words in the Jewish vocabulary “We Will Do and We Will Hear!”