And so it begins, the lament of lovers recited in a thousand Hollywood movies, and books.
Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people are my people, and your G-d is my G-d; where you die, I will die and there I will be buried.
– Ruth 16-17
These are not the words of two people madly in love with other, they are the words of a Moabite woman, Ruth, to her mother-in-law, Naomi. With these words, Ruth binds herself body and soul to the Jewish people. And with her example, she defines the love a Jew is supposed to have for G-d and their people. She also sets the bar for anyone who wishes to convert to Judaism.
Ruth was not the first convert. That honor is accorded to Abraham. His wife, Sarah, follows him as does Ketura (formerly known as Hagar) and many others. The commentaries to the Torah tell us that when Abraham moved to the land of Israel, he converted the men and Sarah converted the women. This is why the traditional name taken by a male convert is Abraham. The traditional name taken by a women is not Sarah, but Ruth. Sarah is known as “Sarah Immenu,” or Sarah our mother. We learn many things from Sarah. She was smart, resourceful, and fiercely protective of her only son, Issac. She knew that the survival of this new, monotheistic people, was predicated on the decisions she made, not those of her husband. Abraham is told to listen to her. She sends out Isaac’s brother Ishmael into the desert because he is a bad influence on Isaac and therefore a bad influence on the people who are to become a “light into nations.” Her role is bound up with Abraham. Sarah is not an independent story.
Ruth is the opposite. She fights as only she can, to become a part of the people of her mother-in-law, Naomi, and her dead husband. She is rejected by Naomi and told to return to Moav with her sister, Orpah. Orpah kisses Naomi goodbye, wipes her tears, and reluctantly returns to Moav. Ruth could have gone “home” as well. She could have returned to her biological family, and been assured of a good life.
Ruth stubbornly resists. She would rather be a “ger” (stranger) in the House of Israel than a princess in the land of Moav. In her lifetime, she will live the history of the Jewish people. She will suffer hunger, and humiliation. She will barely survive by “gleaning” fields to feed herself and Naomi. She will love Boaz and bear a son. She will become a widow and raise her son alone. She will be shunned by the people she so loves, but not the G-d she has chosen to serve. She will live to see the epitome of the Jewish world under her descendent, Solomon. She will follow her adopted people, and do what G-d asks of her. She will do this without question and resistance. She will do this with love, faith and reverence. Abraham’s acts of responsibility; moral, personal and collective will be required if the Jewish people are to accept the Torah and obey its laws. Abraham defines the Jewish nation. Ruth, with her acts of devotion, determination, love and compassion, defines the Jewish people.
We read the story of Ruth when we celebrate festival of Shavout. Shavout is the festival when we celebrate the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. The Jewish people had been released from slavery and was now ready to accept G-d’s law. The people, like a convert, had to immerse in a mikvah and agree to accept the Torah without preconditions.
In each generation, every Jew must make the same decision as Ruth. Jews choose to leave the Jewish people everyday. They intermarry or grow complacent. They become ignorant and unfeeling. Sometimes, they follow other religions. They can also decide to stay, keep their lot with their people and grow. There is no “racial purity” in Judaism. Anyone can choose to become a Jew, and there are Jews of every race and background. However, every Jew whether born into or a convert, must make the conscientious decision to become either the Jew in the woodpile or a link in the chain.
There was a recent study on Jews in the U.S. According to the naysayers, the news is not good. But when you think about it, we don’t hear much from the Hittite Ambassador. Babylonia and Rome long ago stopped being world powers. There is a Yiddish saying, “Man tract und Gott lacht.” Man makes plans and G-d laughs. People and societies have been predicting and counting on the demise of the Jewish people for a few thousand years. The Romans were so determined to destroy the Jewish people, that they sewed the land around Jerusalem with salt so that if they returned, the Jews could not farm and therefore could not exist. Rome disappeared, the Jews survive. The Romans didn’t learn lesson one. Don’t mess with G-d.