Rabbi Daniela Szuster
“For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Book of Ruth 1: 16)
This Saturday night, Sunday and Monday, we are going to celebrate the Festival of Shavuot, the “Feast of Weeks.” It is celebrated seven weeks after the second evening of Passover.
Shavuot combines two major aspects, the agricultural and the historical. The first aspect is related to the grain harvest, marking the end of the spring barley harvest and the beginning of the summer wheat harvest. It was one of the three pilgrimage festivals of ancient Israel when Israelites were commanded to appear before God in Jerusalem, bringing offerings of the first fruits of their harvest.
The historical aspect is the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai seven weeks after the exodus from Egypt. It was one of the milestones of our history, where the people of Israel entered into a covenant with God, receiving the rules, values, and traditions of the Torah.
One of the names of the Festival of Shavuot is “Z’man Matan Torateinu,” “the season of the giving of our Torah.” It is a time of the year when we also should open our hearts and minds to receive the Torah.
One of the customs on Shavuot is the reading of the Book of Ruth. Why do we read Megillat Ruth on Shavuot?
The book of Ruth takes place at harvest time, and Shavuot also occurs at the harvest time in Israel. Indeed, Shavuot is also called Chag Hakatzir (The Harvest Festival). According to tradition, King David died on Shavuot, and the Megillah tells us the story of the beginning of the Davidian dynasty. Ruth was the mother of King David’s grandfather.
Like Ruth, who converted and accepted God and the Jewish tradition with love, so too the people of Israel made the covenant with God this day as they eagerly accepted the Torah.
Among other lessons, the Book of Ruth, I believe, gives us a great lesson about the deep and sincere ties of friendship.
Throughout Western culture, we see many examples of women fighting, competing, and feeling envy, hatred, and jealousy toward each other.
For example, we find in the Torah the rivalry between Rachel and Leah:
“And when Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and she said unto Jacob: ‘Give me children, or else I die.’” (Bereshit 30:1)
In the classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarves story, when the Queen asks her mirror who the fairest one of all is, the mirror answered: “My Queen, you are the fairest here so true. But Snow White is a thousand times more beautiful than you.” Upon hearing this, the queen becomes yellow and green with envy, and from that hour on, her heart turns against Snow White, with growing hatred. Envy and pride, like ill weeds, grow in her heart taller every day until she has no peace day or night.
These are only some examples of hundreds of stories of envy, hatred, and competition between women. According to a feminist point of view, we can understand this prevalent motif in different stories as part of a patriarchal system of fostering division among women instead of allowing them to create deep relationships of friendship.
However, we can find in the Book of Ruth, a different pattern in relationships between women. We have Ruth and Naomi, two women who were alone and vulnerable after the death of their husbands and Naomi’s sons. In that difficult situation, they could have moved apart each starting a different journey as Orpha, Naomi’s daughter-in-law, did. However, Ruth had the initiative to follow and stay with Naomi.
It is written in the Book of Ruth: “But Ruth clung to her… Ruth replied, “Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus and more may the LORD do to me if anything but death parts me from you.” (Ruth, 1: 15, 16-17)
What beautiful words of deep and sincere friendship, of love, compassion, and understanding! Here we can see a different type of relationship among women, without envy, hatred, and jealousy.
These two women were alone in the world and decided to undertake a journey together, helping, supporting, and loving each other. These kinds of relationships fill our souls with happiness, spirituality, and compassion. It is really meaningful to have the possibility to cultivate these kinds of relationships.
Ruth and Naomi, together, with their mutual support and affection, could survive and find peace and success in their lives. They show us how powerful a deep and sincere tie of friendship can be. It is written in the Book of Kohelet: “Two are better off than one, in that they have greater benefit from their earnings. For should they fall, one can raise the other; but woe betide him who is alone and falls with no companion to raise him!” (Kohelet 4:9-10)
One reads in the Talmud: “I have learned much from my teachers… but from my friends more than my teachers.” (Talmud Bavli Masechet Taanit 7a)
Pirkei Avot says: “Come and learn—which is the straight [right] path to which a person should adhere? A good friend.” (Pirkei Avot 2:13).
It is also written in Pirkei Avot: …” acquire for thyself a friend.” (Pirkei Avot 1:6)
The Book of Ruth, along with many other sources of our sacred texts, teaches us the importance of creating deep and sincere links of friendship and cultivating them throughout our lives. These kinds of relationships can fill our souls with meaning, inspiration, compassion, love, and happiness.
Without a doubt, the relationship between Ruth and Naomi is a model for us and can inspire our own lives.
Rabbi Daniela Szuster