We Are All Jews-By-Choice

Get your SKINNY on in (way) less time than it takes to figure out how to use your TV clickers.


(the pitch)

Last week, we finished reading Leviticus – the third of the Torah’s five books. This week, we’re starting the fourth book. [Read this SKINNY for a refresh on the books of the People of the Book(s).] The names of the various weekly chapter-sections in the Torah (aka the Torah reading or portion) and the names of the Torah’s books are derived from the first distinct word(s) of each section. What’s more, the first section of each book shares the same name as that book. This week’s Torah reading is called Bamidbar (bah-meed-bar) and it’s the first chapter in the book of Bamidbar, which means: In the Desert. It gets its name from its opening verse: “And God called to Moses in the desert of Sinai…” It’s called the book of Numbers in English because it begins and ends with a detailed census of the Israelites.
In this week’s Torah reading, God called out to Moses in the Sinai desert and told him to conduct a census of the 12 Tribes of Israel. (If you forgot your MOT – Member of the Tribe – login password, read this SKINNY.) Each of the 12 Tribes had a leader who helped Moses do the counting. (Maybe he wasn’t good at math?) After the count, the Torah reading describes where each tribe was to set up camp and where each was supposed to line up in the march when our peeps were on the move. (No calling shotgun.) The Torah portion also lists the Levites’ job duties related to the mishkan – the pop-up synagogue. When our peeps decided to pack up and move, the Levites would take apart the mishkan, schlepp it to the next camp, and set it up again. (If you were too busy shopping at REI and missed the mishkan’s building, decorating, dismantling, and rebuilding, read this SKINNY.) The firstborn sons from each family were originally slated to get the honor of performing these tasks for the mishkan, but after the Golden Calf escapade they lost the privilege and it was given to the Levites instead. (If you missed the Golden Calf stunt, read this SKINNY.) The Torah portion also includes a description of how the camp was arranged. In the center was the mishkan (makes sense); the tribes were arranged around it in concentric circles with the Levites first. The Levites were subdivided into three groups. The first group was comprised of those who carried the mishkan’s treasures (the altar, ark, menorah, etc.). The second group was those who got to carry the curtains and roof coverings. The third group was responsible for carrying the walls and pillars. (Team SKINNY thinks they had the hardest job). In front of the mishkan’s entranceway were the tents of Moses, Aaron, and Aaron’s sons. (If you don’t know these VIPs, read this SKINNY.) The rest of the tribes were divided into four groups to set up their camps around the Levites. Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun were on the east; Reuben, Shimon, and Gad on the south side; Ephraim, Menasseh, and Benjamin were on the west; and Dan, Asher, and Naphtali were northerners. Team SKINNY imagines it was like a large preschool rug with their names written on it to let them know where to sit for morning circle.


(the over think)

God’s really into counting. Eagle-eyed SKINNY readers know that God told Moses to take a census of the Israelites in the book of Exodus. (If you want eyes like eagles, read this SKINNY.) There are also several other references to census-taking in the Torah and smarty-pants commentators had lots of comments about God’s obsession with counting. Rabbi Shlomo Itzchaki, who goes by the acronym-inspired nickname Rashi (rah-she), was a revered commentator of the Middle Ages. Rashi liked to ask and answer his own questions. He asked: Why did God like counting the Israelites so much? He answered: Because they were precious to God. God counts them all the time. Rashi’s grandson, Rashbam (rah-sh-bomb), whose name comes from the acronym: Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, said the first census in the book of Exodus was to collect coins from our peeps to enable them to contribute toward building the mishkan and they were counted as one nation of Israelites. The purpose of the census in this week’s Torah portion, according to Rashbam, was to count all the men, ages 20 to 60, to know who was eligible for military service and the count was done within each tribe. Another commentator, Rambam (rahm-bahm), whose name comes from the acronym: Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon and is also known as Maimonides, double-downs on Rashbam’s theory and adds that this time our peeps were actually counted by their names as individuals and each person had the opportunity to come before Moses and Aaron to be recognized as a distinct and valued member of the community. Team SKINNY is reminded that we often feel protected when we’re part of a large community. We feel supported when we’re included in a team – or tribe. But when we’re counted and seen as unique individuals, we feel valued and special. We suspect each type of grouping plays an important role in our lives. What do you think? Discuss at dinner on Friday night (or any other night)!


(to be in-the-know)

We’ve been doing some counting of our own these past 7 weeks. The Torah tells us in several different places that we’re supposed to count the 49 days between the holidays of PesachPassover – and Shavuot (shah-voo-oat), which means weeks. The 7 week counting period is called S’firat (sf-ear-aht) HaOmer (ha-oh-mare) or Counting the Omer. (An omer was a unit of measure in ancient times.) Beginning on the second night of Pesach, we started counting the 49 days to Shavuot. The purpose of Counting the Omer is to symbolically connect the holiday of Pesach, which celebrates our liberation from slavery, to the holiday of Shavuot, which celebrates the giving of the Torah. Counting the days between the two holidays is to remind us that our physical redemption from slavery wasn’t a done deal until we got the Torah, which represents our spiritual redemption. Shavuot is a double-entendre holiday. It has both agricultural roots (tee hee) and spiritual underpinnings. Agriculturally, the holiday marks the time in spring when the first fruits were harvested in Israel. Spiritually, Shavuot celebrates that God gave us the Torah. The Christian Bible quotes Jesus as saying: “It’s better to give than receive.” The precept refers to giving to those who are weak and it stresses the importance of giving to charity. While Judaism also obligates us to help the needy by giving to charity, on Shavuot, we celebrate that we are the ones on the receiving end of the giving. On the holiday, we show our gratitude to God for giving us the Torah – not that we received it. That’s because we didn’t just receive the Torah one time. By living holy, ethical, spiritual, and righteous lives, we are constantly receiving the Torah’s teachings, meanings, guideposts, and lessons. For this reason, Shavuot is also called Zman (z-mahn) Matan (mah-tahn) Torataynu (tore-ah-tey-noo) which means: The Season of the Giving of Our Torah. Team SKINNY likes that.


(bookmark. reflect. share)

It’s a custom to read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot. Bookish SKINNIES know that the Book of Ruth is included in Ketuvim (keh-too-veem) – Writings – in the Tanach (tah-nach – like Bach with an “n”). [Read this SKINNY if you aspire to be bookish too.] The Book of Ruth tells the story of a super-fab, non-Jewish woman named Ruth. In Hebrew, Ruth is pronounced like the English word “root” and it comes from the Hebrew word Reut (rey-oot), which means friend. Our friend, Ruth, and her sister, Orpah (like Oprah with an autocorrected typo) were both newlyweds. Ruth’s husband was a nice-Jewish-boy-from-the-hood. When Ruth and Orpah’s hubbies tragically died, Ruth’s mother-in-law, Naomi, encouraged both Ruth and Orpah to go off and find new hubs. Orpah downloaded the biblical equivalent of a dating app, but Ruth pledged herself to her mother-in-law, Naomi. Ruth said: “Wherever you go, I will go. Wherever you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people and your God shall be my God.” Ruth went on to marry another Jew-boy named Boaz (bo-oz) and their progeny is said to have produced King David (pronounced dah-veed in Hebrew). David was such a popular king in biblical Jew-Land, he got a hand-clapping preschool song named after him thousands of years later. (More on King David in an upcoming SKINNY. Cross our hearts, hope to die, stick a needle in our eyes….) Jewish tradition honors Ruth as the first Jew-by-choice because she pledged her allegiance to the Jewish people and to God. Today, many Jews-by-choice take her name as their Hebrew name in her honor. No one’s totally sure how the custom of reading the Book of Ruth on Shavuot emerged, but many scholars connect Ruth’s story about choosing and receiving her identity to the giving of the Torah. Team SKINNY asks: Aren’t we all Jews-by-choice? Every day we make a choice about our identities and about who we want to be in the world. We make the choice to adhere to Jewish customs. We make the choice to strive toward Jewish values. We make the choice to act ethically. We make the choice to learn Torah. We make the choice to be Jews because it elevates who we are as a community and as individuals. Sometimes we fail, but that’s okay. We wake up and start choosing all over again.


(the chew on)

Another Shavuot custom is to pull an all-nighter studying Torah to show our gratitude to God for giving it to us. The stay-up-late study-hall is called Tikkun (tea-coon) Leyl (ley-l) Shavuot which means: repair or rectification for the holiday of Shavuot. No need to go it solo; many communities offer engaging classes and lectures to keep your tired lids from closing or at least to enable you to get a nudge when you dose off. It’s also a tradition to eat a dairy meal on Shavuot. Some scholars say it’s because the Torah provides spiritual nourishment in the same way a mother’s milk provides sustenance to her baby and Torah is likened to milk in a verse from the Song of Songs: “Like honey and milk, the Torah lies under your tongue.” Team SKINNY thinks cheese blintzes were invented just for this purpose. Shavuot lasts two days; this year it begins at sunset on June 11th and ends at nightfall on June 13th.



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