For those of us living outside the State of Israel, there is no “portion of the week", parshat hashavua, this coming Sabbath. The two-day holiday of Shavuot falls on Friday and Saturday and preempts the regular reading. Instead, I will devote this weekly column to the book of Ruth, which is read in the synagogue this Sabbath.
There is hardly an example of human tragedy, which is not a part of the story of Ruth. Famine, exile, bereavement, widowhood, loneliness and poverty all occur to Naomi and Ruth. But there is one aspect of human life, not at all a tragic one, which I think is the central theme of the story and which I would like to discuss as a worthy example of “the person in the parsha”.
I refer to the act of personal choice, of making a decision. We have all had numerous occasions to choose between two courses of action, between seemingly equally beneficial options for our future. Sometimes these have been of momentous importance, and other times, as trivial as deciding between chocolate and vanilla ice cream.
For me, the phenomenon of choice defines the human condition. Only humans choose. Choice and decision distinguish us from the rest of the animal world.
It has been claimed that what makes human beings distinct is our capacity to think and speak; homo sapiens. Others maintain that it is our ability to use tools which distinguishes us; homo faber. And others even go so far as to claim that it is our ability to play which renders us unique; homo ludens.
But if the popular philosophical movement of existentialism taught us anything about the special nature of the human person, it is that we are creatures who choose. We are “condemned” to make choices.
Nevertheless, the responsibility of making decisions is something we try to avoid. In the catchy phrase of Erich Fromm's book, we wish to “escape from freedom". We wish to escape, but we have no choice but to choose.
Ruth is a perfect example of someone who faced the choices in her life and made some very painful ones. They turned out to be part of her heroic destiny and proved to be of singular importance to the Jewish people and to all humanity.
Rabbinic legend tells us that Ruth and her sister-in-law, Orpah, were Moabite princesses. They could have married anyone in their society, but they chose to marry the Jewish “greenhorns”, albeit noble “greenhorns”, and thus made a choice which distinguished them from their sister princesses. They both bucked the tide and married members of the minority in their land. But they exercised choice, and that begins the story.
Their husbands, Machlon and Kilyon, then died, confronting them with yet another crucial life decision. Would they remarry? Would they now conform to their peers and marry Moabite men, or would they continue to irrationally seek Jewish mates – even if that meant choosing to leave their homeland? Choice, painful choice.
It has been said that all important decisions are made on the basis of insufficient data. Of course this is true, because when there is truly adequate information, choices are obvious and apparent, and the decision-making process is of little consequence.
But if it is true that all important decisions depend upon insufficient data, then all heroic decisions are made on the basis of contrary data. The realistic data which lay before Ruth and Orpah certainly would have justified very different choices for them. The data would argue, “stay home"; remain within a familiar culture; marry someone who is socially and religiously compatible with you. Do not marry a stranger, and certainly do not enter voluntary exile in the attempt to find a mate equal to your first love in a distant and alien environment.
This was essentially Naomi's argument to both women. She urged them to consider the data and to make “realistic" choices.
Orpah initially persisted in her choice. But then, her rational, practical nature understandably prevailed. She chose to return home.
Ruth, on the other hand, persisted beyond that point. And she chose, consciously and courageously, another nation, another people, and another god. What an awesome choice! What a dazzling, truly unpredictable decision!
Moment by moment, each of us faces a range of options and choices. We struggle to base our decisions upon sufficient data, although disappointingly, such data is usually not forthcoming.
In the absence of sufficient data, our choices must sometimes be “leaps of faith”. Occasionally, they must be based upon an inner voice, the voice of our conscience, or perhaps the voice of our dreams.
Ruth provides a model for those of us who, when we reach a crossroads in our lives, understand that our decisions cannot just be based upon lists of pros and cons, upon rationally weighing advantages versus disadvantages. Rather, we look within, or look Above, for guidance, recognizing that we have no guarantees that these voices are authentic.
The lesson of Ruth, the person and the book, is that such choices, guided by intuition and inspiration, if not by certainty and information, result in significance to the person, and can determine the course of history: Ruth was the ancestress of King David.
Like the poet Robert Frost, we may look back with regret at “the road not taken”, but alternatively, we may find that the “less travelled road” is the most meaningful one of all.