by Cheri Scheff Levitan (Atlanta, GA)
On Friday night, the eve of the Sabbath, it is customary to bless one’s children. The traditional blessing for boys is “May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe” (Genesis 48:20). Why be like them? These brothers — contrary to Cain and Abel — lived in peace and set good examples for their family and community. While having noble traits and aspirations, my preference is to bless my son with, “May God help you become and do the best YOU that you can in this world.”
The traditional prayer for girls is “May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.” The movie Fiddler on the Roof, however, offers a subtle change in its song, Sabbath Prayer. Instead of repeating the customary blessing offered for girls, a challenge comes in the form of “May you be like Ruth and like Esther.” This statement calmly floats by in the song without ruffling any feathers; either because it is not noticed or no one cares to delve into its actual meaning.
Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah are the matriarchs of the Jewish faith. They played strong supporting roles in the achievements of their husbands– Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Ruth and Esther are not considered to be matriarchs, yet they are the only two women to have books in the Hebrew Bible that are named for them. They were strong women who played leading roles and took matters into their own hands to ensure the continuity of the Jewish people. The prayer from Fiddler is therefore saying, “Be like Ruth and Esther, smart and independent women, who not only take control of their own destinies, but model and guide the future of the Jewish people as well.”
The Book of Ruth is read on the holiday of Shavuot and the Book of Esther on Purim. A careful reading of each reveals two very different women, from different times and backgrounds, who accomplish tremendous things. Ruth, a non-Jew, chooses to leave her own people to join the Israelites. She exhibits acts of faith, modesty, integrity, bravery, and loyalty. The Davidic line and the Messiah ultimately descend from her. Esther, by contrast, initially does not display the noble acts for which Ruth is known. She hides her Jewish name and background to put herself on display to win a beauty contest, and she marries the non-Jewish king. But, once she becomes Queen of Persia, she ultimately risks her crown and life to save the Jewish people from Haman’s anti-Semitism. In the end, Esther displays tremendous cleverness, bravery, loyalty and leadership. It also is interesting to note that the men in their lives, Boaz and King Ahashverosh (a non-Jew) respectively, give Ruth and Esther the support, deference, and respect they deserve.
The wish “May you be like Ruth and like Esther” is an impossibly daunting challenge that is offered to both men and women as well as to Jews and those of other faiths. It is difficult to be like one of these women, let alone both of them simultaneously. Regardless, we cannot ignore this message. The stories of Ruth and Esther reflect very important challenges, as well accomplishments, that have taken place throughout Jewish history. They also highlight changes — changes in identity, ways of living Jewishly, and ways of imagining what is possible for both women and men — that we must face today.
What kind of blessing or wish do you have for your child?
Cheri Scheff Levitan shares stories and thoughts about being Jewish on her blog, Through Jewish Eyes (http://throughjewisheyes.com/), where this excerpt first appeared. It’s reprinted here with the kind permission of the author.