Rabbi Rachel Hersh
The Jewish festival of Shavuot begins this evening at sundown. Of the three pilgrimage festivals, Shavuot often gets less attention, though it is a festival with many rich and nourishing gifts. At the center of this holiday is the tradition of reading the biblical Scroll of Ruth, the beloved story of a family’s transformation from alienated to embraced, from impoverished to blessed, from traumatized to redeemed.
Though Shavuot is also known as z’man matan Toratenu, the time of the giving of our Torah, which highlights our historic experience of revelation, the theme of redemption calls out to us from the reading of Ruth. As if teasing us with literary games to get our attention, the text of the Ruth story shows the word redeem (redeemer, redeemed, redemption) at least 15 times in the space of 20 verses.
The distant relative who bears the responsibility for marrying Ruth after her husband’s death is known to us readers as only “the redeemer,” though this, too, appears to be a bit of irony since the character does everything he can to avoid his responsibility.
Redemption is a word we often hear in religious or spiritual contexts; its meaning remains elusive for many. While it can mean to claim something (or someone) by paying a price (even today, we sometimes say, “I’d like to redeem this coupon . . .” for example), our Jewish spiritual tradition employs this word to mean something else.
The first time we hear the word redeem/er in the Torah is in the book of Genesis (48:16) when Jacob blesses his grandsons by invoking, “the angel/messenger who redeemed me,” who protected me from harm, who brought me out of spiritual exile.
Later, in the book of Exodus, redemption is one of the promises God makes to Moses and the children of Israel (Exodus 6:2). This passage ends with God saying, “I will bring you to me, to be a nation.” From this moment forward, you will be redeemed from a place of spiritual exile, to a place of deep connection and faith.
Readers of the Torah know that it wasn’t exactly Lake Woebegon after the exodus from Egypt, but the promise of that spiritual intimacy is at the core of the journey. Which brings us back to Ruth. She is famously a member of an enemy tribe, the Moabites, but is completely — some might even say desperately — devoted to her Jewish mother-in-law, Naomi. Naomi herself is in a kind of exile, having suffered the death of her own husband and two sons. We feel her alienation when she says, “I went out full [with a husband and sons] and God has brought me back empty” (Ruth 1:21).
Like her mother-in-law, Ruth is not only exiled from her birthplace and family of origin, but also by the loss of her marital status, the only way in which women at the time were protected and sustained. The two heroines, attached by their shared trauma and bereavement, become partners, ultimately redeeming themselves from widowhood, poverty, loneliness and barrenness through their commitment to one another.
If Ruth’s worthiness is by way of her loyalty to Naomi and the Jewish family to which she still clings, Naomi’s is likewise in her commitment to Ruth by guiding her to Boaz, who takes on the responsibility of legal redeemer for Ruth, and discovers love in the process.
The story of Ruth is saying to us, even in the face of devastating circumstances, our capacity for love, for loyalty, for commitment may ultimately redeem us from our own suffering, from the exile of alienation, from the false belief that we are alone. Life is not always easy, not always pleasant, but the potential for spiritual and for personal connection is constant. ■
Rabbi Rachel Hersh is director of Jewish enrichment and engagement