A Tale of Two Women: Maya Angelou and the Biblical Ruth

They were both strong women who were outsiders in an unkind and cruel world.

They lived centuries and worlds apart.

Biblical Ruth was a Moabite, married to an Israelite and widowed without children. She suffered great poverty and hunger.

Maya Angelou grew up in the deep South during the era of Jim Crow laws.

She was sent away from her parents and raised by an aunt, sexually abused and suffered much distress at an early age.

Both Ruth and Maya learned how to survive in a hostile environment, how to thrive and fend for themselves. Both figured out how to provide for their families in the best way possible. Both shared an unshakeable faith and the values of family, community and culture.

Maya Angelou was able to overcome her difficult life circumstances and build a life of purpose and meaning through her work in the civil rights movement, art, writing, and theater world. She accomplished so much in so many different areas that she truly was a “Renaissance Woman.” She touched the lives of so many others and helped give expression to what is in our hearts and minds.

Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou

We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty. (Maya Angelou)

Biblical Ruth also overcame her circumstances as a widow – without status – living in a foreign country to achieve great heights. She took it upon herself to care for her widowed mother-in-law, Naomi, to provide for her and to watch over her. She adopted Naomi’s faith and people as her own.

Ruth, Naomi and Boaz
Ruth, Naomi and Boaz

“Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” (Ruth 1: 16-17)

Ruth’s reward for her devotion, faithfulness and loyalty is that she too, achieves one of the ultimate accomplishments for our Biblical women – she gives birth to Obed, who becomes the father of Jesse, the father of King David. Ruth – the Moabite, the foreigner, is the great-grandmother of King David, from whom the Messiah is supposed to descend.

Both Ruth and Maya Angelou are two strong women who overcame difficult beginnings to achieve great accomplishments.

Maya Angelou was a woman of deep and abiding faith. She once said: “In a world of confusion and noise I look for the moments that help me understand who I am, where I come from and what I want to be. The Bible brings to life the stories that have shaped our world and shaped my life. Stories that have helped me to forgive. Helped me to love. Helped me to overcome. Helped me to survive, and even do better than that, helped me to thrive.”

We read the Book of Ruth next week during Shavuot, the time we celebrate the receiving of Torah. Ruth was the first non-Israelite who chose to link herself to the God of the Israelites. She is known as the first “Jew-by-Choice.” Her deep-rooted faith gives her and Naomi the strength to endure and overcome the hardships that have burdened their lives.

Let us be inspired by the faith of our Biblical Ruth and the faith of Maya Angelou, two extra-ordinary women of faith. As we prepare to celebrate the gift of receiving of Torah next week, let us renew our own commitment to our values of faith, family and our tradition.





The Blessing of Friendship

I had the pleasure of bringing my four-year old nephew Xavi to pre-school on a Monday morning when I was visiting two weeks ago.

My four-year old nephew, Xavi and his friend at their pre-school.
My four-year old nephew, Xavi and his friend at their pre-school.

As we entered his classroom, one of his friends was so excited to see him after the weekend, she ran up to him, threw her arms around his neck and gave him a huge hug. “Xavi! I missed you!” she exclaimed. With her arm wrapped around his waist, she peppered him with questions: “Do you like my headband? Do you like my pretty dress? Do you like my shoes?” And she wouldn’t let go.

Xavi, the good friend that he is, answered each question in the affirmative. He added that she looked very pretty. And they ran off to play.

I loved watching their excitement and enthusiasm at seeing each other after a weekend of being apart. Even at very young ages, we are able to develop deep and meaningful friendships.

I remember when one of my friends was moving from Toronto to Los Angeles with his young family for a new job. His three year old daughter was terribly sad at leaving all her friends. She informed her parents: “You will need to make me a going away party so that I can say ‘good-by’ to my friends. This move is going to be very difficult for me – I can’t imagine living so far away from my friends!'”

I am reflecting on all of this now as I too, am in the process of packing my home and office to move half-way across the country to begin a new position. My friends here in Highland Park are sad to see me leave. I am trying to assure them that I keep my friends for life, that they will always be with me, no matter where I go.

I love to collect things: artwork, books, Judaica, culinary items. My “things” help to make my house feel like a “home” no matter where I’m living.

However, like many of us, the older I get, I realize my most treasured “collection” can’t be boxed up or put on display. My most treasured collection is the friendships I’ve developed over the course of my life.

I have friends ranging in age from their teens’s to their 90’s. I have friends who have been with me from childhood and friends who I met just recently. My friends come from all walks of life, live in many different countries and cross the political-religious-race spectrums.

True friends are not the people we necessarily meet on Facebook (although deep and meaningful friendships have been known to begin that way) or online. But true friendship is defined by those people who are there for us through “thick and thin.” They are present for us in times of rejoicing, in times of grief and in the every day ordinary moments as well.

The rabbis of old tell a story about a man named Ivan, who asks his friend: “Tell me my friend, do you know what gives me pain?” His friend replies, “How can I know what gives you pain?!” Ivan replies: “True friends know what pains us. They know what gives us pleasure. They know when to say a kind word and when to keep silent in our presence.” His friend then learned what he needed to do in order to become a better friend.

Many of my friends live far away: Toronto, Hawaii, Israel. Some of them will always pick up the phone and call to check in. We know that email or a text message or Facebook can’t replace the sound of hearing someone’s voice. They will come and spend time with me in person for both joyful occasions, ordinary moments and difficult times. And I try to be there for them as well. To have friends, one must be a friend. I am not always a perfect friend, I am not always as good at staying “in touch” as I would like, but I do try my best.

Our Jewish tradition teaches us (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 8) that we should “Acquire yourself a friend.” What is the meaning of this text? The commentators say that this text teaches us that we should acquire a friend with whom to eat and drink, read and study, sleep and share secrets of Torah and personal secrets.

In the beginning of the Torah, as part of the creation story, God says: “It is not good for man to be alone. I will make a fitting help-mate for him.” God then creates Eve. People are meant to live in relationships: with partners, with friends, with community.

As a Jewish community, this notion is reinforced by the fact that we need a minyan – a quorum of 10 people – in order to recite certain prayers. As a people, we believe that it is important to live in community, surrounded by others. As Jews, we do not live in isolation. We cannot celebrate the passage of time or the cycle of life alone. The power of friendships and the power of community can be uplifting indeed.

So as I prepare for the next phase of the journey of my professional career, I feel incredibly blessed and strengthened by the incredible friendships that have sustained and nurtured me throughout my life. These friendships are my most precious gift, my most precious “treasured possession” which I carry in my heart always.

Some of my friends and me
Some of my friends and me


Reflections on 25 Years in the Rabbinate

Last Thursday, I had the honour of receiving my Doctor of Divinity, honoris causa, from my alma mater, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR).

HUC invites its graduates to apply for this honour on the 25th anniversary of their ordination or graduation from their graduate programs.

I wasn’t expecting to feel so incredibly moved and touched by having this honorary degree bestowed upon me.

However, my colleagues – the rabbis and cantors – who were receiving this degree with me, spent the day together, studying, reflecting and sharing our experiences from the past 25 years. We continued our celebratory day by eating a festive lunch together, reminiscing, taking photos and catching up. We were then joined by our family and friends for the actual ceremony and the conferring of the degrees. It was a very moving, joyous and wonderful event indeed.

We began in the late morning with a study session on the bima in the grand sanctuary of Temple Emanuel (New York City) led by HUC-JIR President, Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, Ph.D

Sanctuary of Temple Emanuel, New York City
Sanctuary of Temple Emanuel, New York City

We sat in a circle and studied a text from the Talmud about Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, who founded the great rabbincal academy at Yavneh immediately after the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE. The text discussed his characteristics as a “rabbi”: he was always first to open the building and last to close. He never took time for himself to rest or for personal time. His community was always his first priority – above and beyond all else.

We discussed this model of rabbinic leadership. Was this a realistic model? Were we supposed to sublimate ourselves to the exclusion of all else for the sake of our communities? Is that a healthy rabbinic/cantorial model? Did Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai make any time for himself? For his family?

We all acknowledged that engaging in Jewish communal work as a professional entails more than working “9-5”. For many of us, we strive to find the perfect balance between the ideal “model” of rabbinic/cantorial/Jewish professional and making time for a satisfying personal life. If we don’t take care of ourselves, we won’t be able to take care of others, to be “fully present” for each and every member of our communities when it is most important.

Each of us then had the opportunity to reflect on our own experiences from the past 25 years. Some of us have remained close over the years, some of us have not seen each other since we were ordained.

Our colleagues and friends are living and working in very diverse environments from as far away as Israel, Australia, Canada and all across the United States. We practice in large congregations, small congregations and not-for-profit organizations. Some have even retired. Like our congregants, we too have experienced the joys and sorrows of all that life offers during these past two-and-a-half decades. Our hearts have filled with joy watching our children grow and blossom; we have felt the pain of divorce, the heartache of illness and death. For some of us, our professional journeys have always been extremely rewarding and fulfilling. For others, there have been challenges and frustrations that have made the journey more arduous.

Through it all, each of us is grounded in the desire to serve the Jewish people. Our commitment and love of our Jewish heritage compels us to continue along this path we began so long ago.

For the past 25 years, each of us has done so with full hearts, open spirits and to the very best of our abilities.

As Rabbi Panken reminded us, we have earned our Doctor of Divinity degrees through our years of dedicated and unstinting service.

I was more moved than one can possibly imagine.

I feel so privileged and honored to be partners with a community where I can celebrate the cycles of life, the festivals of our Jewish year and elevate the everyday ordinary moments and help imbue them with a sense of holiness. To me, my 25 years in the rabbinate have been a wonderful gift and a great blessing.

It was so special to celebrate the day with Dr. Eugene B. Borowitz, Professor of Philosophy (and pre-eminent Reform philosopher of our time) who taught both my father, Rabbi Richard J. Sobel, z”l (HUC-JIR, NY ’66) while he was in rabbinical school and then me, two decades later:

Dr. Eugene B. Borowitz and me
Dr. Eugene B. Borowitz and me

And it was so wonderful to be sharing that special moment with my friends and classmates who started this journey with me 30 years ago.

I look forward to the next phase of this sacred journey!

My Doctor of Divinity, Honoris, Causa, from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion
My Doctor of Divinity, honoris causa, from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion