We are approaching Shavuot, the holiday when we traditionally read the Book of Ruth. Ruth is the Torah’s most famous Jew by Choice. Rabbi Rebecca Gutterman wrote this beautiful message to her congregation about the moving story.
A number of years ago (at this time and season, as we Jews like to say), I was teaching the Book of Ruth to a group of teenagers. While there are stories that take their time in building the narrative and revealing the major plot points, this story is not one of them. Within the first 14 verses, the character of Naomi loses both her husband and her two sons, and her surviving daughters-in-law face the choice of remaining with Naomi or going back to their native land. With such life altering events presented one after the other, I asked my students what they thought this story was really about.
A rare moment of silence followed. And then someone ventured an answer. "Death," he said.
"Yes, and... what else?" I asked.
A longer moment of silence, and then someone else said: "Birth."
Both of them were absolutely right. The Book of Ruth, which is read each year at Shavuot and which speaks to the power of community and loving relationships, actually begins from a place of great loss. Devastated by the death of her family, Naomi pleads with daughters-in-law Ruth and Orpah to leave her, believing she can no longer be a source of sustenance to them. Standing at this literal and figurative crossroads, Orpah makes the difficult decision to heed Naomi, while Ruth cannot. In her refusal, there is rebirth, for in affirming their bond, each promises the other a future. Equally beautiful is that this text expresses no contempt for the direction Orpah chose. Or as another of student put it, "I think she just wanted to go home."
Don't we all.
And the roads we negotiate as we get there, the experiences we encounter and integrate on the way, carry both pain and joy. Whether returning to what is familiar like Naomi and Orpah, or folding one's life into the unknown like Ruth, new revelations await us all. That's what Shavuot celebrates. It is a harvest festival in every sense - for our forebears, and for us - then and now.
On Tuesday night May 30 beginning at 6:00pm, please join us for an Erev Shavuot celebration that will be the first of its kind in our congregation. We are blessed to have acquired a new Sefer Torah of our own, and will be celebrating the filling in of the final letters followed by bringing the completed scroll into the ark. This is a sacred milestone with a part for each of us to play. We look forward to welcoming you here as we welcome our new Torah home.
B'nai Tikvah, Walnut Creek