The texts we read on the holiday of Shavuot offer two encounters with the divine, Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso explains, one in the dramatic revelation at Sinai and the other in the quiet unfolding of human relationships.
The Book of Ruth, which we read on Shavuot, is so evocative. How can we use its wisdom in our lives?
Let me offer a suggestion. You have two powerful stories in regard to Shavuot. You have this amazing story of Moses going up to the mountain and receiving the 10 Commandments amidst what I would call audio-visual fireworks. It’s quite a dramatic moment. He does it alone and he’s separated from the community.
Then at the opposite pole, you have the story of Ruth. In that story there are no audio-visual fireworks; God does not intervene; there are no miracles; there are no mountains. Instead of a mountain there’s a threshing floor when Ruth goes after she gleans the field. She goes to Boaz and uncovers his feet on the threshing floor and that begins the trajectory of their marriage. Instead of the voice of God to Moses, we have two women whose relationship ultimately gives expression to the divine. So the miracle is not on the mountain, the miracle is in relationships to others, between Ruth and Naomi and then Ruth and Boaz.
These are relationships between unlikely partners. Ruth is a Moabite, an enemy people; she is a stranger; she is widow and, of course, she’s a woman. She’s the least likely person you’d expect redemption to come from. And yet she becomes the ancestress of King David, [whose descendant, the Messiah, will ultimately] bring about redemption.
I find it a fascinating story because it lives with us where we live every day. Most of us are not going up to some mountain and having a revelation. Most of us are trying to make a life amidst relationships and daily routines. That’s what this book is about. It’s about finding the divine where we live, in some of the least likely places we would expect to find it. The Rabbis say we include this book in the Bible, even though it isn’t about revelation or God intervening, because it’s a book about loving-kindness.
We’re always focused on the pilgrimage up the mountain because that’s the most dramatic. It’s a great cinematic view. Abraham goes up Mount Moriah. Moses goes up Mount Sinai. Moses dies on Mt. Nebo. Elijah is on Mt. Carmel. Mountains are the points of revelation.
But Ruth inspires us to look at less dramatic moments, where we live, in our homes with other people. We need that juxtaposition.
In what way is Ruth’s struggle for faith like our own struggles?
I find it very interesting that Ruth decides to go with Naomi and says “Your God will be my God.” I wonder why. Why would she pledge allegiance to the God who had in her understanding not done anything kind? Naomi’s husband dies. Ruth’s husband dies. Naomi says God has made her life bitter. What would encourage Ruth to adopt this God as her God? And yet she does.
I would put it this way: I would say in speaking to Naomi, she’s actually saying, “I don’t understand your God but I understand you. If you are angry with God, we’ll be angry together, and we will find God in each other.” This is a faith that’s tried in life’s crucible and difficult moments. It’s not an easy faith because the situation is not easy. Ruth doesn’t say, if you get me a husband, and make me wealthy and welcome me into the community, you’ll be my God. She says: “Your God will be my God” and they travel together.
It’s a very different kind of faith. If you see thunder and lightning and Moses coming down with the commandments, it’s hard not to believe. We don’t see those huge moments of revelation very often. But the questions are: Doesn’t revelation take place all the time? Are we giving ourselves the time and quiet and the space to notice it?
So Ruth is the book for how life really is?
Ruth is a book for the way we live every day. It’s for noticing the holy in the moment, to recognize that the sacred is present if we only open our eyes to see it and find it. It doesn’t always hit us over the head.
For me it’s very powerful for women, because for me relationships and connections are essential and that’s what I try to do in my work - build connections. I am building connections between art and music and literature and religion. How do you make those connections between one discipline and another and between one person and another? How do you build community? How do create a web of connections that allow life to grow even more creatively?
Ruth really raises questions for us. Would we welcome a stranger into our own homes like Naomi does? She’s known Ruth for a long while, but she’s still from an enemy people. Not only would we welcome that person into our own, but would we trust her and be willing to accept help from her? Because ultimately Naomi accepts help from Ruth and she could have blamed Ruth. She could have said, “You married my son and he shouldn’t have married a Moabite and that’s why we’re having all this trouble.” But ultimately they come together. It’s not an easy coming together, but they come together.
Do we see God in acts of loving-kindness on a daily basis? That is the central piece of the story. There is no reason why it only has to be related to women, but relationships often sustain women at very difficult times and are very powerful.
Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso is a noted storyteller, senior rabbi emerita of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck in Indianapolis and author of many books for children and adults. The first woman to graduate from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, she is currently Director of the Religion, Spirituality and the Arts Initiative at Butler University and Christian Theological Seminary.