Ruth and the Holocaust

The Book of Ruth takes on new significance in modern times.

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In his article "The Covenant of Being,"Rabbi Greenberg asks if the suffering of the Jewish people can reach a limit and break the covenant. In this article, he shows that reading the Book of Ruth as the "liturgical climax of Shavuot" can hold new answers to the question of suffering. Here Greenberg continues elaborating his major groundbreaking idea of the covenant as an ongoing historical process that binds together Jewish people in time, rather than in space. Reprinted with permission of the author from The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays.

Many explanations have been offered for the custom of reading Megillat Ruth (the Scroll of Ruth) on Shavuot. There would be no conversion but for the covenant, which opened up the Jewish people to others who shared its values. Ruth was an ancestor of David the king, and according to tradition, David died on Shavuot. The story of Ruth is set in the harvest season, and Shavuot celebrates the summer harvest.

But none of these reasons touches the deepest levels of the book. Only after the Holocaust can one understand its true message. Despite its surface gentleness, Megillat Ruth is suffused with tragedy, with suffering, even with betrayal. The land of Judah suffered famine, and Ruth's husband-to-be and father-in-law abandoned it to save themselves. In Moab they died suddenly, without children, unknown on a foreign soil, their lives untimely ended. In this welter of pain, the questions arose: Is life absurd? What is the meaning of all this? The answers grew out of the woman named Ruth. She loved her husband even after his death and did not want his name to die with his childless family.

The covenant of love extends beyond the grave. Ruth loved Naomi, her living mother-in-law, and would not let her go away alone and impoverished. Although there was no hope or reason for it and there was no visible redeemer to keep the family name alive, Ruth insisted on going with Naomi. She acted out of hesed, a loving-kindness that saw not only the bleak reality but the possibilities of redemption that may still break through the harsh surface of an unredeemed world.

Ruth remained faithful. She joined Naomi's people and embraced Naomi's God. And incredibly, out of this barren, rocky soil grew hope--an act of kindness, a relative who cared. A marriage followed and a child was born who became the grandfather of David from whom would come the Messiah. Out of faithfulness comes hope; out of suffering comes redemption; out of love comes renewed life.

Asking Difficult Questions

On the holiday of Shavuot the mind turns to the cruel and bloody record of Jewish history, to the harsh, unyielding evil that all but destroyed the Jewish people in our time. And the questions rise up and afflict the soul: Did it all matter? Was it worth it? Will any good come of it?

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Rabbi Irving Greenberg

Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg was the president of Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation and founding president of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He also is the author of For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter Between Judaism and Christianity (2004, Jewish Publication Society).