On Monday afternoon, while working in my home office in Ramat Beit Shemesh, a siren roared. My gut reaction was: “I think this is a warning siren.” I immediately went downstairs to confirm with my wife, and all five of us went into our bomb shelter room hearing and feeling the impact of rockets nearby, staying there for ten minutes, as directed by Israel’s Home Front Command. That was the first time my family ever took cover from a bomb threat.
Through Tuesday, thankfully Beit Shemesh avoided another dreadful siren alert, but our homeland was pounded by many hundreds of rockets causing death and injuries. I felt overwhelmed that night, trying to process what was happening and how fast it escalated. I remember feeling this years ago before making aliyah in response to tensions in Israel. The best word I could find now was fear. Not a direct fear, yet something resembling a more comprehensive fear of knowing the threat loomed for me, my family, and millions of others, and that it was beyond our control. I realized then that, if I didn’t assert myself in something positive, this fear would grow.
On Wednesday, I’m thankful to say I chose a way to assert myself in this crisis that resonated uniquely to me, and the shift was almost immediate. However, later that night, an alarming headline came across my screen. It seems that, in response to riots against Jews in mixed cities with large Arab Israeli populations, Israeli Jews participated in a protest that turned to violence against an Arab citizen, prompting an immediate call from Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yosef for Jews not to attack Arab neighbors.
In the very last verse of the book of Shoftim (21:25), it reads: “In those days, there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” This verse relates to the cycle we find in story after story in that book. When you consider what the world has endured in the last year alone, this response seems to fit in today’s context as well. I think a word cloud to describe the thoughts from a random passerby during this period would include terms like confusion, polarization, and distrust. Enter the verse from Shoftim, and the choice of doing your own thing starts to make a lot more sense.
In God’s infinite wisdom, all of what’s going on now is also happening just days before Shavuot, and we’ve been preparing for this chag with Sefirat HaOmer since Pesach. However, aside from customs, there are no unique mitzvot regarding Shavuot like the other two regel holidays Pesach and Sukkot, and Shavuot is only one day (two outside of Israel) while the others are seven or more days.
A universal custom of Shavuot is the reading of Megillat Ruth. This story opens with “And it happened in the days of the judging of the judges… (1:1)” The simple takeaway is that this time period overlaps with the actual book of Shoftim/Judges, and so the inclusion of “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” is relevant right away. Elimelech, and his two sons Machlon and Chilion did what was right in their eyes by leaving their people and homeland during a national famine despite being a leading family at that time, and all three died prematurely for their choices.
Naomi also made choices. She chose to act despite her losses and return to her homeland. Then there’s Ruth, and words do not capture the positive impact of her choices, However, Ruth’s legacy is clear based on the consequences of what happens later. The first stage is clinging to her mother-in-law and wanting a relationship with Hashem as a Jew and never returning to her birthplace of idol worship. But it doesn’t stop there. Ruth takes on accountability in providing food for her and Naomi, and does it looking to be met with grace rather than relying on the mechanics of collecting lawfully allowed grains for the poor. And that intention brings her to Boaz’s field and her assertiveness makes an impression on him and his workers almost immediately.
As the verses continue, the stage is set for more paramount choices. Naomi chooses Boaz as the primary candidate to marry Ruth, and she devises a plan that puts most Biblical commentators on defense in clarifying that nothing was sinful regarding the upcoming encounter with Ruth and Boaz, while others go even further in saying the plan was right and proper given the context. Ruth for her part makes Naomi’s plan her own, to the point of becoming Naomi’s surrogate, as the verses in the third chapter show fascinating distinctions between the words written on parchment (indicating Naomi) versus the way they are read aloud, confirming it’s Ruth doing the acts. It was also Ruth that took her now strongly developing Jewish identity and was willing to cast it all aside in a crucial moment of vulnerability in asserting herself to Boaz to fulfill the will of her mother-in-law. As for Boaz, despite waking up to a shocking and uncomfortable scenario, he speaks in praise of Ruth for her actions and even requests she stay the night with him until morning recognizing Ruth’s vulnerability should be honored and protected at all costs even with any risk to his reputation as a leader of the nation. This was followed by Boaz asserting himself that same day to ensure the marriage would happen through Ploni Almoni or himself.
The end of the story echoes how Ruth remained loyal to her choice in being Naomi’s surrogate, so much so that in 4:14, the verse attributes Ruth’s baby boy to Naomi without any mention of Ruth. The consequence of Ruth’s and Boaz’s willingness to cast away their identities so they could optimally relate to God and fulfill His will was the stuff of spiritual superheroes, and the legacy of their choice goes well beyond their individual greatness, for the story ends with the birth of David, the first king from the tribe of Yehuda and one of the greatest leaders our people has ever known.
Despite being only four chapters long, the contrast between how the story begins and ends is almost a complete 180-degree turn, from everyone doing what they wanted because there was no king in the beginning, to the birth of an eventual king in the last verse, ending the painful cycle our people were stuck in for hundreds of years. In between, we find all the key characters making life-altering choices to perform God’s will, even to the extent of letting go of personal identity in the process, not realizing it would forever amplify their greatness for generations to come. In contrast, the name Ploni Almoni is a pseudonym and hints at the sad irony of his choice. He abstained from fulfilling the mitzvah of marrying Ruth lest it destroys his inheritance (4:6). In other words, he chose to focus on his identity and so his actual name/identity would never be remembered from this story.
And now we have come full circle. Ruth’s choosing God and asserting herself as a Jew in every instance she could as part of that choice are essential reminders for the present. But the stakes are higher. We’re not on the cusp of revealing the first king from Yehudah. We’re just mere moments away from revealing Mashiach, King David’s destined heir.
Shockingly, despite the incredible legacies of Ruth, Boaz, and Naomi, this Megillah is not opened and closed with a bracha. How can this story be left as a custom like the other Shavuot rituals? Yet, that’s exactly the point. Their very greatness is based on their personal choices, and personal choice is organic and willing, not obligatory. That’s also why Shavuot is just one day. Making a choice doesn’t happen over multiple days. Choices happen one moment at a time while keeping a commitment to them can last a lifetime, which bridges into the collective response we gave at Har Sinai: “We will do, and we will listen (Shemot 24:7).”
It’s 5781, and the Torah was given to our ancestors almost exactly 3,333 years ago. Right now, we seem to be replaying a very tumultuous and challenging time from our past, and yet we’re also on the brink of an incredible transformation.
What unique and personal contribution can you make that no one else can in your choice of serving God?
If you can’t identify something unique now, how can you find it?
These are questions that speak to our essence and whatever missions God has for us. I bless us all to find the answers and be assertive in the process. Because more than ending the current threat to our people and homeland, being real with ourselves and finding the answers to these questions will bring the permanent redemption our world needs more than ever.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.