What Shavuot Teaches Us About Women

This commentary is provided by special arrangement with American Jewish World Service. To learn more, visit www.ajws.org.

The first verse of
Megillat Ruth
reads like the headlines of a tragic and all-too-familiar news story. The defective and unstable government of the judges leads to famine. Bethlehem—the city of bread—becomes the city of starvation. Lack of food security results inevitably in forced migration—a journey of sorrow characterized by homelessness, vulnerability, health risks and ultimately, death.

The second verse of Megillat Ruth reminds us that famine, forced migration and their associated risks are not only the stuff of this particular story, but are perennial struggles in the Torah: Mention of Efrat calls to mind the tragic death of Rachel when fleeing from Lavan (Genesis 35:16); Elimelekh’s name evokes that of Avimelekh, the king of Gerar—villain of the famines and consequent wanderings that threatened the patriarchs and matriarchs (Genesis 20 and 26). Hunger and homelessness are not one-time events of the megillah, nor the lot of strangers in a distant land; rather, Megillat Ruth reminds us that they are part of our national heritage during the periods in which we have lacked just and effective rule.

But the megillah also suggests a solution to this recurring plight: the inclusion of women in the work of building a strong family, society and the eventual establishment of good government. Ruth’s selfless heroics bring salvation not only to herself, her mother-in-law Naomi and her family, but also to the Jewish people as a whole. By leaving everything she knows behind and courageously starting a new family, Ruth turns catastrophe into a vibrant future. By giving birth to Oved (Ruth 4:17), the grandfather of David, Ruth paves the way for the Davidic dynasty—a government of “justice and righteousness” (II Samuel 8:15) that not only represents the kingdom of Heaven but also brings in its wake the ability for every individual to dwell “safely, each man under his grape vine and under his fig tree” (I Kings 5:5). At the hand of Ruth, famine has the potential to be abolished, replaced instead by security, sustainability and justice.

Posted on May 14, 2010

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