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Ruth-less society

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WHEN we read the Book of Ruth next week on the holiday of Shavuot, we are reminded that all Jews are in essence converts. Some of us go back further than others, literally to Mount Sinai, when a mass conversion of the Jewish people took place. Others of us trace our Jewish heritage and identity to more recent times.

As a people, we cherish Ruth so much. Our love for her unexpected act of kindness, a game changer in the Book of Ruth, is real.

Yet in our daily Jewish life sometimes there is cognitive dissonance between our love and reverence for Ruth — the “Ima shel Malchut, the Mother of the Davidic Monarchy” — and our attitude to real life converts.

We are supposed to treat the convert to our community with extra kindness, but instead we often feel suspicious, forever regarding them as The Outsider.

Granted, there can be challenges and legitimate issues with the conversion processes. All in all, though, it would be nice to see the cognitive dissonance gap shrink a bit.

After all, that is the soul of The Scroll of Ruth: lovingkindness, chesed. To convert is to come from a place of love, not law. This choice of faithfulness is often radical, defying the rational.

The enduring characters of Ruth and Naomi, of Boaz and his day laborers, are replete with kindness, initially shining from Ruth herself as she spontaneously and profoundly clings to Naomi, taking a step into the terrifying unknown.

Until that point in the story we read of a society in which “it was the times of the judges,” that is, every person went by his own judgment, doing was was right in his own eyes, instead of considering the needs of others. It was, in fact, a Ruth-less society.

Elimelech and Naomi abandoned Bethlehem (Bet Lechem, the House of Bread) and her people — the place and the society in which bread was no longer to be found — for Moab, to find bread for their family.

The exodus from Bet Lechem was an act of Ruth-lessness. The later exodus of Naomi and Ruth from Moab was the opposite: Ruth-ness. Kindness.

Naomi, bereft and alone in her life that has come totally unravelled, was about to cross back to Bet Lechem. Then Ruth does the unexpected. She joins Naomi. Elimelech and his family abandon the people of Bet Lechem in their hour of need, but Ruth abandons her comfortable home to join Naomi in her hour of need.

Elimelech and Naomi depart Bet Lechem in a Ruth-less way, only to return by way of and with Ruth.

AND so, year in year out, as we celebrate Shavuot, the giving of the Torah — our blueprint for how to live as a Jew, our legacy replete with laws — we mark the celebration by pairing this legal code with Ruth-ness. With reading the scroll depicting her kindness.

We affirm the Oral law of the Torah as a companion to the Written Torah, the Ten commandments. For according to the Written Law it is forbidden for an Israelite to marry anyone from the nation of of Moab, yet the Oral Law law elucidates:This excludes only male, a Moabite, but not a Moabitess, a female. Ruth is not excluded.

The Book of Ruth on Shavuot goes even further. The Torah, our book of law, is the essence of Judaism. However, if it is not accompanied by acts of kindness beyond what is legally required, then it is not Judaism.

Yes, acts of kindness are mandated by the Torah. Ours is a faith of action. From the Book of Ruth itself we learn many laws of kindness, such as not to harvest a certain percentage of our crop but to leave it for the poor. Acts of humanity are intrinsically woven into halachic Judaism.

Yet, according to the midrash, the edification of the law itself is not the purpose of the Scroll of Ruth. “Why was it written? To teach you about gomlei chasadim, those who engage in acts of lovingkindness.”

Ruth, strikingly, went above and beyond. But in his smaller way, Boaz too engaged in acts of kindness. He left grains in the field for Ruth and the poor to glean.

And beyond his legal obligation, he also asked his laborers to keep an eye on Ruth. He offered her drink. He left extra barley, beyond the halachic requirement. Boaz was Ruth-ful.

He recognized Ruth. He saw her as the antidote to a Ruth-less society in which “everyone did what was right in his eyes.” He saw her as a key to a society in which people did not just see themselves, but also saw The Other reflected in the pupils of their eyes.

Copyright © 2014 by the Intermountain Jewish News

 

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