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Mothers-in-Law, Sandy Koufax, and the Lesson of Shavuos

Posted by Rabbi Yehuda Spitz
June 5th, 2011
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by Rabbi Elchonon Feldman

Rabbi of Belmont United Synagogue, London, U.K. 

As we approach the anniversary of one of the most epic historical periods of our nation, I am reminded of a….  Mother-in-law joke:

What do you do if you miss your Mother-in-law?

 Reload and shoot again.

Let me explain why a coarse piece of humour is on my mind as we approach Shavuos, our re-enactment of receiving the Torah at Sinai.

When it comes to Jewish-American sports heroes, the famous Baseball Pitcher Sandy Koufax comes to mind. In his famous act of loyalty to his roots, on October 6th 1965, during the first game of the World Series, the Dodgers versus the Twins, Sandy refused to pitch (that is throw the ball at a guy with a wooden bat, for all those unfamiliar with the sport), for it was Yom Kippur day.

In this selfless act of commitment, Sandy became a Jewish-American icon, a model for generations to come; for Jewish men and women to make their own sacrifices by putting their Judaism before themselves.

Imagine you were in the same Shul as Sandy during that Yom Kippur service. Obviously, the Rabbi would have made an honourable mention during his sermon of Sandy’s self-sacrifice. I can imagine it would not have gone something like this: “Sandy, I would like to publicly applaud you on your dedication to your ageing mother, you have gone out of your way to escort her to Synagogue today and you have doted over her throughout this service. Oh, in addition, I think it’s great that you didn’t play baseball today, possibly forfeiting your entire professional career.”

Why am I convinced that the Rabbi did not mention the devotion Sandy had for his mother? Although, of course, it is laudable to treat one’s parent with care, still, relative to such a massive act of sacrifice, it just doesn’t seem to register.

Yet, we see in Megillas Ruth, which we will be reading over Shavuot, a fascinating thing. Boaz, a Jewish aristocrat, who marries Ruth the convert, explains what exactly attracted him to her: “I’ve been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband—how you left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not know before.” (Ruth 2:11)

We must analyze this verse. First Boaz comments how Ruth helped take care of Naomi, her Mother-in-law, after the passing of Naomi’s son, Ruth’s husband. This is very nice indeed. However, only afterward does Boaz even mention Ruth’s supreme accomplishment of leaving her house of royalty in Moab, becoming a peasant, and following the religion of her heart. How can we give centre stage to kindness to one’s Mother-in-law in contrast to Ruth’s famous conversion? Perhaps this is why the above mentioned Mother-in-law joke came to mind.

I think we can offer something a little more substantial. The Targum Yonason ben Uziel, an early commentary on the Torah, explains as follows: Boaz was not just describing his personal admiration for Ruth, rather he was explaining Ruth’s merit to be the mother of the Davidic dynasty; the Birth-mother of Moshiach. True, the ability to sacrifice one’s self for what is right is an outstanding virtue, perhaps integral for royalty. However, simple personal care is the cornerstone of Judaism. The Talmud tells us that there are certain attributes which characterize and exemplify the characteristics of a Jew, the finale of which is our Chessed. Ruth deserved to be the Mother of royalty not just due to her spiritual devotion, but rather because of her kindness.

As we approach our own special re-acceptance of the Torah on Shavuot, we need to decide how much of a role caring and kindness plays in our own lives. When we are shooting for the stars in terms of spirituality, our relationship with our fellow man is paramount to get us there.

Perhaps the Rabbi did mention Sandy’s kindness to his mother during the sermon, or at least he definitely should have.


 Rabbi Elchonon Feldman has over 15 years experience at high level Yeshivos as both student and teacher, where he gained the relevant Torah fundamentals and skills to lead and teach a congregation. This is complemented by a degree in Liberal Arts and a councellor’s license. He received semicha last year and recently completed a two year rabbinic training program at the Ohr Lagolah Leadership Institute. He is a talmid of mine, as well as the newly appointed rabbi of  Belmont United Synagogue in London, U.K. He can be reached at  rebelchb@gmail.com.


Categories: Hashkafah, Inspiration, Mussar, Shavuos Tags:

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