Reading the Book of Ruth on the Holiday of Shavuot

By Lori Lefkovitz.

One of the many unsettling and remarkable aspects of sheltering in place all of these weeks is how one day blends into the next and it’s hard to remember what day of the week it is. Today, I found myself happily surprised by the length of daylight and had to remind myself that we are already in late May, summer looming before us.

On the Jewish calendar, we are coming to the end of the period called the Omer, when one literally counts the 49 days between the festivals of Passover, honoring the myth of liberation from Egypt, and Shavuot, which begins this Thursday evening, and celebrates the moment in the desert journey when the wandering slaves accepted the Torah on Mount Sinai. Shavuot literally means “weeks,” a reference to the 7 weeks of counting (7 x 7) that culminates in the revelation of Torah.

Counting each day is a spiritual practice for many people, and the mystics assigned special attributes for contemplation to each of the days. On Shavuot itself, there is a custom of studying all night long, with the idea that the heavens will open to study and gift us illumination, because studying contributes to the repair of the world. Studying has magical, efficacious power, and I am right now grateful to scientists whose Omer these long weeks has been dedicated to discovering a vaccine and cure.

On Shavuot there is a custom of studying all night long, with the idea that the heavens will open to study and gift us illumination

On another register, the Omer is a measure of barley, and each day is counted using this symbolic grain measure. The connection between barley and Torah may lie in the Jewish saying that “without bread there cannot be Torah.” (One cannot study well if you are hungry.) A sad consequence of the pandemic and the halted economy has been the rise in food insecurity, and because we count these days to make our days count, a lesson of this season—and we seem to find this lesson in each of the Jewish seasons—is to feed the hungry.

A barley field near Ben Shemen, in the central Judean hills, 1942. From the Jewish National Fund photo archive.

Perhaps because the biblical book of Ruth is set during the barley harvest, it is customary to read Ruth on the holiday of Shavuot. As a literary work, it is a simple pastoral romance about moving on in life, but in the context of the Bible and the Jewish holiday cycle, the story ends with a hint of Messianic redemption in the birth of a baby. Ruth is my favorite biblical book. Its Jewishness may be most evident in its main metaphors—food and sex—a woman’s barren body a metaphor for the barren land in time of famine. I have written about Ruth often, and share some of my reflections here.

Ruth begins with a family of four that once upon a time (long ago, “when the chieftains ruled”) left Bethlehem (literally, “The House of Bread”) for Moab (a biblically cursed place) when Bethlehem was experiencing a famine. We are no more than a few verses into the story when the reader discovers that there have since been marriages and deaths in this family: the father Elimelech is dead, as are both sons, leaving only the widow Naomi and her two foreign daughters-in-law, one of whom soon leaves her. We start with depletion: no bread, a move away from home, loss of husband, and loss of both children. (Once upon a time, there was no bread in the house of bread, and a man named “My-God-is-King,” his sons “Disease” and “Destruction” and his wife “Pleasantness,” left for the Cursed Place, where all but Naomi—Pleasant—died. And so begins the biblical Pilgrims Progress.) 

The rest of the story transforms the tragedy into comedy.  Tragedy, by time-honored definition, ends in death, a cutting off of the future; comedy ends in marriage, an opening up of the future. The whole story may be read as the redemptive power of two women who are able to resist despair. Naomi, an old woman, decides to go home. Ruth, famously, insists on accompanying her (“Wherever you go, I will go…”), and despite the unlikely odds, a distant relative marries Ruth during the harvest; Ruth gives her newborn son to Naomi (from famine to fertility). As the story ends, we learn in a genealogy that this baby, who has no story of his own, will be the grandfather of King David, who, in turn, legend has it, will be the ancestor of the Messiah, the figure who will someday usher in the redemption of the world.

The front page of a medieval illuminated manuscript of the Book of Ruth, with commentary. From the British Library.

I am struck by how far this story stretches into the past before and the future beyond these episodes in the life of a widow and her daughter-in-law. This little romance ends with Ruth and a newborn baby, and most of us freeze the frame there. But the genealogical epilogue actually invites us to glimpse this newborn as a grandfather, grandfather of King David. Just a shape on his grandmother’s lap, we learn nothing about the baby’s later life except that he has a bright genetic future. Similarly, Ruth’s story begins with an undisclosed prehistory. The text alludes to a full earlier life, from the hunger that led to the decision to leave home to the wedding ceremonies that bridged cultures, but the characters of the dead men are left to our imagination, part of the plot’s deep background. 

It’s as if, on this long timeline—ancient roots in Bethlehem that extend through David and stretch on to eternity—someone placed a magnifying glass on a single tiny dot on the line, a little detour in and out of Moab, in which two women who survived great personal losses found a way to move on, redeeming us all through their promising new baby. Thought of in this way, we might just as well move the magnifying glass to any other place on the line and find ourselves in another story on the way to redemption with different characters on different adventures, whose lives share the simple facts of birth and death. 

The newspapers in these days are filled with death notices, where we see how a life becomes poignantly compressed after death. No sooner is someone gone from life than the subtleties that constitute the fullness that was a person slip away. A set of telling memories, salient character traits, the best and worst qualities are foregrounded and so the person, over time, is reduced to the bold strokes that suggest his or her likeness.

No sooner is someone gone from life than the subtleties that constitute the fullness that was a person slip away

What we offer each other is company in sorrow, proof that we all suffer and endure. From a cosmic perspective, each of us is a small spot on intersecting timelines, and during the years of our lives, the magnifying glass is positioned over our small time and place.  And so it is that mostly we hold fast to life. But many people who lived long full lives approach their end with a growing detachment. Focused on remembering the past and blessing the future, it is as if they become aware of their place on an infinitely extensive trajectory.

When I read the ending of the Book of Ruth, I want to jump into the story and tell the mother and grandmother the secret importance of their baby in much the same way that we have moments when we wish that someone who is dead could take pride in their future by seeing us now. Maybe this is why Jewish practice interrupts holidays with Yizkor Memorial services, to acknowledge the absences that inevitably compromise all celebrations. Jews shatter glass at weddings in part keep us mindful that all celebration is compromised by loss.

But I wonder if The Book of Ruth is not wise to tell the story of recovery without attempting to capture what was lost. Significantly, Ruth’s first husband is memorialized through the child she has by his kinsman. Perhaps he remains present in other ways through a chain of people that includes those whose lives Ruth touched. How exactly the future will manage to contain the past is ultimately mysterious.

What is certain is that the future will contain (and from a Jewish view, will redeem) the past, no matter how deeply that past seems to retreat. An awakened memory may sometimes surprise us or we may notice an ancestral feature in a child. Our bodies remember what our minds forget. That daddy held us closely as babies or teased out our first giggles is preserved in our characters rather than in our memories. Each of us carries genetic material that is as old as life on the planet.

The Book of Ruth triumphs over death by intimating at the widest possible perspective on life

Naomi and Ruth left behind the remains of husbands and children in order to start over, and what they carried in their hearts and bodies we will never know. What we know that they never knew is that their moving on in life after tragedy carried the promise of blessing for the whole world. The Book of Ruth triumphs over death by intimating at the widest possible perspective on life. The way we honor the dead is to live with the conviction that our lives are promising no matter how grim things may seem and that the promise of our futures is partly owed to the often intangible ways that our dead have shaped who we are.

Lori Lefkovitz directs the Jewish Studies program at Northeastern University, where she is also a professor English and Director of the Humanities Center. A fuller reading of Ruth can be found in her book In Scripture: First Stories of Jewish Sexual Identities.

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