Religious : : Thoughts from Our Rabbi

On Shavuot we study the Book of Ruth. Why do we read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot? 2 reasons: 1. it takes place during the harvest season, and Shavuot is the harvest holiday. 2. it’s the story of how Ruth became a Jew & Shavuot is when we all became Jews, by accepting the Torah at Mount Sinai.

Midway through the opening chapter of the Book of Ruth, three women stand at a crossroads: Naomi, and her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth. Naomi is going home, back to Judea, where she belongs. Her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, have gone part way with her, now, they have to decide whether to continue, or go back from where they came. For a moment, the three women stand there, united by shared, common pain, each one a widow, each one having lost her husband.

Both daughters-in-law understand Naomi’s pain, yet they are different. They are young, and she is old. They are Moabites, and she is from Judea. They are capable of marrying again. She is old, bitter and depressed. Naomi’s definition of a woman is, “A woman who has a husband and children.”

That was the definition of women in a patriarchal world & the definition of women for centuries; even the definition of women up to our time. It was not common, a generation or two ago, for women to go to college. If they did go to college, what did their mothers say was the purpose of going? It was to get a MRS. DEGREE. We don’t hear that expression any more, it used to be common, a woman’s purpose was to get a husband, have children.

It is not like that today. Today, a woman can have dignity, status and purpose even if she is not married. We no longer call women spinsters or old maids; we call them single women. We live in a world in which women often outlive their husbands. Women can no longer define themselves by whether they have children because child-raising only takes up 20-25 years of a woman’s life and she has a whole stage of life after the raising of her children.

Yet listen to what Naomi says. She says, “Thank you for offering to go with me, but it wouldn’t be right. Go back, each of you, to your MOTHER’S house. What sense would there be in your going with me? Do I have sons in my body, who might be husbands to you? Turn back, my daughters; I’m too old to be married & even if I was married tonight, even if I bore sons, would you wait for them to grow up? Should you, on their account, debar yourselves from marriage? Oh, no, my daughters. My lot is too bitter, for you.”

Here, Naomi reveals her assumptions about what it means to be a woman. What kind of a life without a husband, without children to raise — who will you be? And what will you be? Orpah hears the argument, kisses Naomi good-bye and goes home to her mother. She not only hears the argument; she understands it; she accepts it. A woman is a wife and a mother – or she is nothing.” Orpah says, “I will accept your advice, return to my mother’s house.”

What does Ruth do? She answers Naomi with a famous speech everyone loves: “Entreat me not to leave thee, & to depart from following after thee, for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge; your God will be my God, your people will be my people, only death will separate me from you.”

It’s a great speech; it testifies to a young woman’s courage and love yet there is one thing missing. Ruth makes no mention of Naomi’s argument; she doesn’t say a word in response to Naomi’s claim, “If you come with me, you won’t get a husband, you won’t have children, therefore, you will be worthless.” Instead, she says, “I care about you, I want to be with you… even if that means I won’t be a wife & I won’t be a mother.”

We live in a world, in which women cannot & should not define themselves simply as a wife, or a mother, because you are only a wife for a part of your life, you are a person of worth, dignity and purpose, for ALL OF YOUR LIFE!

Chag Shavuot Sameach,
Rabbi Dennis