Shavuot Special Edition: A Lesson From Ruth

Sometimes it takes an outsider to solve inside problems.

It’s no accident that a convert to Judaism mothered the dynasty of King David and Moshiach.

Table for Five: Special Shavuot Edition

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

Wherever you go, I will go, and wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people and your God my God.

-Ruth 1:16

Sara Brudoley, Torah Teacher and Lecturer

Rabbi Zeira said, “The scroll of Ruth has neither impurity nor purity, neither prohibition nor permission. And why was it written? To teach you the good rewards of those who perform acts of lovingkindness.” We do, however, learn several laws and commandments from this scroll: laws of converts, laws of gifts to the poor, laws of modesty, laws of property, and more, all from Ruth and her refined actions, and you say, “Why was this scroll written?”

What the sages meant is that if Ruth did not possess a unique character trait, one that everyone needed and that all should learn from her, then all other the good traits you find in her would not have existed. Ruth had a trait that was missing in Israel during that time. The trait of chesed, lovingkindness. Ruth accepts the yoke of mitzvot out of her loyalty to her husband, her mother-in law and HaShem, and she does not ignore the suffering that awaits her.

Ruth’s brave and sensitive behavior towards her mother-in law is a model for accepting responsibility, love and loyalty towards HaShem. Ruth demonstrates how a person can ignore his ego for the sake of a relationship, even when it’s not logical, and against his own interest. She teaches us how to cling to HaShem. The reward for charitable, philanthropic acts is “Kingship.” Ruth the convert became the “Mother of the Monarchy” – the matriarchal ancestor of of King David and Mashiach.

Nina Litvak, accidentaltalmudist.org

Every year on Shavuot when I read this passage, I get teary-eyed. Ruth is the Biblical character with whom I most identify on a personal level. Unlike Ruth, I was born to Jewish parents, but my family was thoroughly assimilated and I came to Jewish observance as an adult like Ruth did. I am the first woman to light Shabbat candles in my family in almost 100 years. A convert is known as a “Jew by Choice,” and a returnee to Judaism is also a kind of Jew by choice. Embarking on a life guided by Torah meant rejecting the secular values that have guided my family for a century. Ruth too rejected the values with which she was raised.

Being a Jew by Choice is not an easy path. Ruth traded the elevated status of a Moabite princess for a lowly existence as a pauper dependent on charity. My status as an educated, worldly adult means nothing when I can’t help a second grader with her Hebrew homework. Why did Ruth and I turn off the path we were on and follow the road less traveled? Because it’s the road we were meant to be on all along. The path of three millennia is longer and deeper than the path of a century. Ruth pleaded with Naomi to let her join the Jewish people because she already felt part of the Jewish people. Ruth said “Your God shall be my God” because she knew that Hashem was her God all along.

David Brandes, Writer, producer

Why has Ruth’s statement to Naomi endured through the ages? To be sure, it is a stunning declaration of love and loyalty, reassuring Naomi that she will not abandon her spiritually, physically or tribally. As Rabbi Levi Meier (z”l) writes in ‘Second Chances,’ his profound book on Ruth, “Ruth rises to the challenge of being there for Naomi during Naomi’s most difficult hours. Specifically, because ‘God’s hand is directed against Naomi’, Ruth’s hand ‘reaches out’ to Naomi. By helping Naomi, she is also extending her hand out to God.”

Remember, Naomi has lost everything – her husband, her sons, her money. This is abandonment in its rawest incarnation. Naomi is depressed and hopeless. Who wouldn’t be? Ruth’s genius is that she realizes that Naomi doesn’t need cheering up or empty promises of a better tomorrow. She needs to be seen and she needs to know that her tragic period of abandonment is over. She, Ruth, will stay with her in every way. She gives Naomi hope and infuses her life with a sense of optimism for the future. As Rabbi Meier puts it, “In staying with Naomi, Ruth shows a nobility of character far greater than the nobility she was born into.”

Years ago, I visited patients at Cedars-Sinai for, and sometimes with, Rabbi Meier. It was a revelation. With deep compassion behind the simple phrase, “I am here with you,” Levi gave patients strength and optimism to face the dark unknown. May his memory be a blessing.

Rabbi Elchanan Shoff, Beis Knesses of Los Angeles

Ruth chose to link herself with the Jewish community and our destiny. When a person becomes part of the Jewish people, he or she leaves one world and enters a foreign one. Our community thus becomes extremely responsible to embrace them.

The Torah constantly repeats the command to “love the convert.” But when Ruth goes on to say, “only death will separate me and you,” the Midrash Rabbah records that Naomi replied, “indeed, death will separate us, and each person will be responsible for her own actions. So be charitable and do good deeds of your own. That is all that you’ll have!” This Midrash then goes on to express how no person can aid another person in the world to come. The great Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi assured someone “I will take care of you in the next world,” but he was corrected by a colleague’s wife, “No person can help another in the next world!”

Have you ever met a person disillusioned after they have chosen to join the Jewish community? “I expected more. More honesty, more embracing.” Indeed let’s take this to heart. We can improve. But what brought our leader King David out of the great Ruth was the lesson that she embodied. The community can’t do it for me. I must do this myself. It’s my personal responsibility to be great; at some point, my actions will be all that I have. As we receive the Torah as a nation, with a united heart, don’t forget: take responsibility for yourself.

Yehudit Garmaise, Reporter and Freelance Writer

“Ruth happened upon the field that belonged to Boaz,” we read in Megillat Ruth.

But we know from Parshas Vayikra that “vayikar” does not mean by chance, but rather, Hashem uses this word when He engineers the places we find ourselves.

Ruth had faith that everything she was experiencing was part of a much greater plan. For this reason, she was sure of her path. Ruth was confident and comfortable with herself.

When I wandered into Meah Shearim many years ago, for instance, I knew I had walked through a portal and climbed a ladder to an infinite, starry night sky that I had only previously intuited in my dreams.

Several months into the pandemic, I started writing remotely for a Boro Park news website. After a year of lockdown, the day I got my first vaccination shot, I bought a ticket to work in the Brooklyn office for a week that ended with a friend’s joyous wedding.

Although thrilled to be out and about, and in a such a beautiful, Chassidish neighborhood, I felt slightly unsure. At one point, I said something that conveyed insecurity about not being sufficiently “heimish.”

A colleague bluntly responded: Brooklyn-style, “Don’t have a complex.”

“Be really proud and joyful in being a baalas teshuva (returnee to observant Judaism). Hashem put us each on our journey, from the day we were born: and before. And He continues to guide us at every moment. Let’s all be comfortable in our own skin and feel joy about what we choose.”

With thanks to Sara Brudoley, Nina Litvak, David Brandes, Rabbi Elchanan Shoff and Yehudit Garmaise

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