Religious school students recently asked me what my favorite story in the Bible was.
I told them that my answer regularly changes, but it’s currently the story of Ruth. The book of Ruth is traditionally read at the time of Shavuot, our third festival of the year (Sukkot and Pesach being the other two), which this year takes place May 26-27. In Reform congregations, we celebrate Confirmation on Shavuot, and we always read the Ten Commandments from the Torah. It is a holiday where we celebrate receiving the law, which is our special set of rules from God.
The book of Ruth is a story of a woman choosing to join the Israelite people and take on the same special set of laws. Ruth is our first example of a Jew by choice, a convert. And to this day, when someone becomes a Jew, they say the words Ruth spoke when she chose the Jewish people as well. Ruth, a Moabite, was struck with tragedy: her Israelite husband, brother-in-law, and father-in-law all died in a short time period and Ruth had no children. Naomi, her mother-in-law, gave Ruth and her other daughter-in-law the option of returning to her parents’ home, since Naomi was going to move home to her Israelite people. Ruth said no because she wished to stay with Naomi and follow her. Three times Naomi refused Ruth and tried to send her back to her father’s house, and three times Ruth asked to stay with Naomi. She said, “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.” I think this is so beautiful. Naomi doesn’t know what her prospects are. She is a woman alone in a time when women needed the protection of a family, and yet Ruth chooses her. She chooses whatever that might mean. She chooses the realities of not having a husband or children, of possibly not having food, and of a new and different God with new and different customs and laws (these she chose when she married, but it is different to choose again without her husband).
But why I love this story so much is its connection to today. The words Ruth spoke are said even now when someone converts to Judaism. It is an awe-inspiring and affirming thing for someone to choose to be Jewish. It is hard to be Jewish sometimes. Even here in Marlboro, NJ, in 2012, where it really isn’t THAT hard, we still might wonder: why would someone want to be a Jew? Maybe it isn’t that meaningful to you, so why would someone else choose it? But even beyond the affirmation that someone who is not born Jewish would choose to become a part of our people, this story has continued relevance. How many times do we hear a story in the Bible that directly speaks to something you do today? Maybe during the Jewish holidays. But other than mentioning the holidays, the greatest focus on them in the Torah is on the proper sacrifices, not on coming to temple for Rosh Hashanah or having a family meal. Okay, at Passover we retell the story from the Torah, and the Torah tells us to celebrate for 7 days by eating matzah, but our seder is not reading from the Torah; it is from the Haggadda, a condensed retelling with other emphases, which doesn’t even mention Moses. But Ruth connects us directly from text to action, and an awesome action at that.
So next week my favorite bible story might be something different, but right now I’m inspired by those who chose to become Jews, and by the story of the first woman who chose to do so as well. Thank you, Ruth, for all you teach us, for your bravery in following Naomi, for your inspiration to modern times. May we born Jews live up to your love of the Jewish people and God.