As we enter the third month of the coronavirus pandemic’s impact in this country, let us recognize the courage, tenacity, generosity, and kindness expressed by so many, and the hope that we may draw from the collective effort to contain this virus. If we learn one important lesson from this painful episode, it is that at moments of loss, pain, fear, and discomfort we have found ways to support each other and act responsibly, conscientiously, and thoughtfully to protect ourselves and others. Beyond the extraordinary commitment of medical and other front-line service providers and professionals as well as a wide range of essential workers, our greater community is exhibiting signs of strength, stamina, and spirit that bode well for our future.
In noticing and appreciating communal strength and support, we draw inspiration from the scroll of Ruth, a narrative that unfolds during the Omer – the seven weeks separating Passover and Shavuot (in the Gregorian calendar, the weeks of April and May). Ruth and Naomi’s story is anchored in pain and loss. Naomi and her husband Elimelech leave their native Judea for Moab because of a famine. There, Elimelech dies, as do Naomi’s two sons, and a hopeless Naomi, accompanied by Ruth, a Moabite daughter-in-law, makes her way back to Judea. Upon her return to Bethlehem, she urges those who recognize her to cease calling her Naomi (meaning “God’s comfort” in Hebrew) and renames herself Marra (meaning bitterness.) The opening of Naomi’s story resembles the end of a dark tragedy. Yet, alongside the loss and the pain, Naomi and Ruth’s entire story is punctuated with expressions of humanity, compassion, and kindness. Following the death of her two sons, both her daughters-in-law express the wish to join Naomi on the journey back to her native land. Naomi’s separation from one of her daughters-in-law, Orpah, is accompanied by tears, compassion, and the final kiss of departure. Ruth’s determination to remain with Naomi, her pronouncement of loyalty to and love for Naomi, endures as the most touching, moving biblical articulation of shared values, purpose, and fate. Then, upon their arrival in Bethlehem, Ruth and Naomi depend upon and benefit from the support of a relative, Boaz; Ruth is sustained and protected through the harvest season, and in turn sustains Naomi. Boaz’ message to Ruth “I have been told of all that you did for your mother-in-law after the death of your husband, how you left your father and mother and the land of your birth and came to a people you had not known before. May the Source of Being reward your deeds. May you have a full recompense from the Source of Life, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have sought refuge!” (Ruth 2:11-12) suggests deep consciousness of the widows’ pain and need, and a willful determination to support them. As we know, this biblical masterpiece ends with the wedding of Boaz and Ruth and the arrival of new life – a celebration for both Ruth and Naomi. This Shavuot story is rendered all the more remarkable by the identification of Boaz as the descendant of Peretz – the son of Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar, a child conceived in deception and alienation. At the same time, the union of Boaz and Ruth is clearly identified as the cornerstone of the Davidic line. Thus, in a stroke of genius, the biblical author identifies King David as the descendant of a problematic union between Judah and Tamar on the one hand, and a Moabite woman – Ruth, on the other.
We learn a great deal from the story of Ruth and Naomi, and especially about cohesion, compassion, and support: The values of commitment to others in their moments of need, and a capacity to encounter their human stories and share our human gifts with them remain inspirational to us. The voluntarism and concern that so many among us have shown to others in our greater community are a living testament to these values. They constitute yet another demonstration of the depth of our reservoirs of communal resilience and love – reservoirs of the waters of life that sustain healthy, strong communities. May we continue to experience humanity in our encounters with those who come to find shelter among us and under God’s wing. May we always be attentive to human stories, the narratives of human lives. May we remain generous and compassionate toward those who experience pain and need and extend to them our assistance and support. The blessings of new life and its endless potential will surely emerge. May this be God’s will.
– Rabbi Jonathan Cohen