May 29th, 2012 by Rav Shoshana
My husband and I have just embarked on our 30th year of marriage. For those of you in long term relationships you know that when you take your vows for better or worse, it often includes the “better or worse” of your partner’s family as well.
The challenges of “in laws.” The term “in law” refers to the fact that one is related to them by the “law” of marriage. In Judaism, the word “law” is translated as “halacha.” It refers to the system of Jewish law of the commandments or mitzvot. It is derived from the verb “to walk,” meaning that when one engages in the mitzvot of Jewish law, one is in fact desiring to “walk with God” in one’s life.
The holiday of Shavuot commemorates God’s giving these laws- the Torah -atop Mt. Sinai and we Jews receiving it- kabbalat Torah. But how do we actualize this to “receive Torah” in our modern day lives?
For a start we can be inspired by the Book of Ruth read at this season of the year. Ruth, the daughter in law of Naomi clings to her mother in law after both their husbands die. Her sense of love, loyalty and faith are upheld by Jewish tradition as an example of a non-Jew- Ruth who “receives Torah.” She tells her mother in law (Ruth 1:14-16) she will go where ever she goes, she will stay with her wherever she stays, her people will be her people ad her God will be her God.
This year celebrating Shavuot was a challenge for me. As it coincided with Memorial Day weekend we were away and tried to search out spiritually rich services; there were few to be found. On Monday as the chag (holiday) was winding down I found myself following behind an ambulance which was taking my mother in law to the emergency room. We had come back to find that she was languishing in her bed and needed immediate attention. It turned out she had a blood clot in her lung, an infection and a blockage.
Before the ambulance had come, I had layed next to my mother in law, and she was scared. She was insisting on coming back home to sleep in her own bed. I said, “Mom, I can’t promise that, but what I can promise is that if you have to stay I will not leave your side. I will treat you and care for you as I would my own mother.”
It brings tears to my eyes even saying the words now. I love my own mother so very much and know that whenever she has needed me, I care and advocate for her with the fierceness of a lioness protecting her cub. After 30 years of marriage I felt my mother in law not only deserved the same, but that I wanted to offer that to her. While her sons are wonderfully devoted to her, they don’t have the same touch as a daughter, especially one who has worked as a hospice chaplain. It was also expressing and fulfilling the words she has said to me often in the last number of years, “you are my daughter.” As her daughter/daughter in law I was saying to her “wherever you will go I will go, wherever you stay I will stay and whatever your needs I will make my needs and advocate for you.
It was cold during the night in the hospital despite the record heat outside. I used a white cotton blanket to keep warm. As I wrapped it upon my shoulders I found myself placing its folds upon me like a tallit. Throughout the night I held her hand, covered her with a blanket, found the ice machine to insure a cold cup of seltzer, and sang the Flemish song she used to sing to our children.
On the way home the next morning I realized the poignancy of this experience. I had been disappointed with the lack of a traditional Shavuot observance, yet when I reflected upon the night before I realized she and I had embodied the story of Ruth together. As mother in law and daughter in law we had forged a bond of love, connection, devotion and loyalty deeper than either one of us could have ever imagined.
As I crept into bed to recover the lost sleep, I did so with deep gratitude. Gratitude that my mother in law’s health would be restored and for her role as my teacher in helping me to have “received Torah.” Drifting off to sleep I knew the received Torah that night in the hospital was my Sinai. It was Torah that was given, received, planted and a Torah of love that will forever live in my being.