Shabbat Shalom from Bruce Washburn:
Here is this week’s D’var Torah:
Shavuot, Shabbat Shavuot | Nasso (Israel)
May 26-27, 2023 | 7 Sivan 5783
First Day Shavuot: Exodus 19:1-23; Numbers 28:26-31;
Haftorah: Ezekiel 1:1-28; 3:12
Second Day Shavuot (outside of Israel): Deuteronomy 14:22-16:17;
Numbers 28:26-31; Haftorah: Habakkuk 3:1-19
Shabbat (Israel): Numbers 4:1-7:89 Haftorah: Judges 13:2-25
Ruth and Rebecca
On Shavuot, we read the short, seemingly simple tale of Ruth. There are multiple reasons for this – it happens during the harvest, it tells a story of acceptance of Torah, it emphasizes hesed. It’s a really good story with a happy ending. It points us toward King David. But what most fascinated me is that the four short chapters of Megillat Ruth seem to contain just about every other biblical story within them. The characters and stories of the rest of the Tanakh are alluded to and sometimes even retold within Megillat Ruth. This recasting in the Megillah offers a new and distinctive spin on the familiar tales. We read echoes of well-known stories retold such that the hero is now an non-Israelite woman.
The stories of Genesis feature prominently in Ruth. We can find Abraham’s journey from Canaan, Lot’s daughters, the constant famines necessitating journeys, and Jacob’s name change without looking too hard. The story of Tamar and Judah and the importance of levirate marriage is central to the way Megillat Ruth is told. These retellings add new perspectives to the original stories. I find the most thrilling retelling to be that of the betrothal of Rebecca.
The story of Rebecca’s betrothal is told in Genesis 24 from the point of view of Abraham’s servant. The chapter has the dubious honor of being the longest chapter in Genesis, largely because the story is repeated so many times, with the servant relating the tale of his journey in slightly different ways to various different audiences. Rebecca herself appears only briefly. However, iconically, she makes the choice to leave behind her homeland and her family to go with the servant back to the servant’s land in order to marry a man she does not know there and become a mother of the Israelite people. Likewise, Ruth chooses to leave behind Moab and her mother’s house in order to return with Naomi to her homeland where she will marry Boaz and become a foremother of King David. As noted by biblical scholar Yoni Grossman, the language used in Ruth mirrors the language of the Rebecca story – we read of mothers’ houses and bless God for not withholding.
The power of Ruth recasting Rebecca’s story is that we get more of Ruth’s perspective than we had of Rebecca’s. Rebecca’s opening lines to the servant seem to be prewritten for her by God, scripted according to the servant’s test that she must offer water also to his camels. We do not know what motivates her or how she feels. Moreover, the marriage is negotiated almost entirely in her absence. It is only after days of feasting and plotting that Rebecca is brought back into the story to be consulted. She is asked, “Will you go with this man?” and she replies, in one word, “I will go.”
The Ruth story radically expands our access to the woman’s perspective. Ruth explains her decision to go with Naomi at length, “Do not entreat me to forsake you, to turn back from you. For wherever you go, I will go. And wherever you lodge, I will lodge. Your people is my people, and your god is my god. Wherever you die, I will die, and there will I be buried. So may the LORD do to me or even more, for only death will part you and me.” Ruth’s words help us to understand the enormity of Rebecca’s decision, the near craziness of putting one’s life in someone else’s hands to follow them to a foreign place. Ruth helps us to understand both her decision and Rebecca’s decision as on par with Abraham’s original decision to answer the call to leave behind everything he knew to come to a new land. She helps us to understand our own decision to do the same on Shavuot, to leave Egypt fully behind to come to a new land and tie our fate to it.
However, Ruth does not leave her fate in God’s hands. Much like Rebecca, Ruth arranges circumstances so that she will succeed. She, like Rebecca, is a stranger in a strange land, and yet both of them determine their own destinies. Rebecca consults with God when pregnancy is difficult and then becomes an agent to ensure that God’s will is carried out. Ruth in her determination to keep herself and her mother-in-law alive and well seems to figure out the nuances of biblical law even better than the Torah wrote them in order to manage the situation to her benefit and the benefit of the community. She and Rebecca serve as powerful calls to action for all of us. Of course, this call comes from understanding Ruth in light of Rebecca. This Shavuot, I encourage you to listen for the rest of the Torah as you hear the Megillah read and see what Ruth can teach you.