Reading Ruth

It is four short chapters and a beautiful story. 

During the challenging times of shelter in place, traditional texts open doors and hearts to wisdom, insight and comfort. One such book is the book of Ruth, which is read during the holiday of Shavuot celebrated beginning Thursday night, May 28.

If you have not read the book of Ruth – pick it up and read it.  It is four short chapters and a beautiful story.  On a basic level, the Book of Ruth connects to Shavuot because it describes a time of harvest, and Shavuot celebrates the wheat harvest. Shavuot is also understood as the holiday when God gave Torah.  Ruth is seen as the first convert – one who personally received Torah.

A closer at the book provides insights for how to deal with difficult times. The book describes sad losses.  Ruth’s husband and his family moved to Moab due to famine.  Different cultures, religions and histories came together in the marriage of Ruth and her husband. We learn of the tragic death of Ruth’s husband, and her mother-in-law, Naomi, decides to return to her home of Bethlehem.   In a beautiful story of loyalty, Ruth insists on accompanying Naomi back to Bethlehem and accepted Naomi’s faith and belief as her own.  In the famous line, Ruth says to Naomi: “Wherever you go, I will go. Wherever you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.  Where you die, I will die and there I will be buried.”

The book of Ruth is a story of loss, loyalty and love. Once in Bethlehem, Ruth and Naomi are impoverished – they don’t have husbands, who in those days provided economic support.  They depended on the kindness of others to open their fields and we read that Ruth went to gather gleanings from the field of Boaz.  This is a story of facing difficult circumstances – loss, poverty, defying convention.  And amidst those difficult circumstances, emerges insight and understanding.  A Midrash teaches connects Ruth’s acceptance of Torah with experiencing suffering and poverty.  This teaching reminds us that sometimes trials and challenging situations– like the ones we have been experiencing – lend themselves to faith and insight.  On the evening of Shavuot we will study and learn from each other some of the insights and wisdom that these difficult moments have brought forth for different people in our community. 

A piece of Ruth’s wisdom is that loss and suffering, cause us to focus on love. The Hebrew word chesed  is repeated over and over throughout the story.  Chesed is acts of care and love that go beyond obligation and reflect generosity of spirit and giving when nothing is returned.  Boaz, the wealthy landowner, notices Ruth’s chesed toward Naomi and to him.  The story teaches that chesed activates further chesed. Boaz explains the kindness and protection he extends to Ruth as a response to the chesed and loyalty Ruth has displayed to Naomi.  Her love of Naomi helps Naomi to not only reframe how Naomi sees God – from a God who has dealt harshly with her, to a God of chesed – “Blessed be God who has not failed in lovingkindess to the living or to the dead.” The book of Ruth comes arouse us to live up to our ideals of kindness and love.  That has been an essential aspect of our time in shelter.  We have been called upon to interact with those in our homes with kindness under difficult circumstances.  We are witnessing inspired acts of kindness and painfully aware of places where kindness needs to extend.  The book of Ruth reminds us of the power of kindness to help transform difficult circumstances into blessings.

The book of Ruth also calls upon us to question our basic assumptions about life and others.  The Moabites were traditionally seen as enemies of our people, and we are forbidden to marry a Moabite.  Yet Ruth is the heroine of this story.  She embodies the qualities that Judaism teaches.  In fact, she is the great grandmother of King David, the great leader from whom the Messiah will descend! The book of Ruth teaches that we can overcome and upend centuries of hatred.  Rather than hold onto ingrained viewpoints, we learn to question assumptions and look for the good.  Might a response to the time we spend sheltered in place be that we begin to see things differently and question conclusions that have defined us throughout life.

Shavuot and the book of Ruth at coming at a perfect time.  We are reminded that we can find revelation during difficult times, that love and kindness transform every experience and idea can change and evolve.  Each year we stand at Sinai again ready to receive Torah anew. Let’s allow our current realities to help us live this in different ways this year.