To Begin Again
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And it wasn’t just Ruth and Naomi. There is a third widow, or widower, in our story: Boaz. The Talmud explains that Boaz has also suffered the loss of his beloved, going so far as to suggest that on the very day that Naomi and Ruth arrived in Bethlehem, Boaz had just buried his wife. Boaz may have been blessed with material comfort, but as he was aging and without an heir, his legacy was altogether uncertain. Were there to have been a Yizkor service in Bethlehem, I have no doubt that sitting there in the pews would have been Naomi, Ruth, Boaz, and so many others – together apart – tears flowing freely – each recalling their respective loved ones. And each reflecting on the uncertainty of their present and future.
The redemptive arc of the book of Ruth is not linear. Neither Ruth nor Naomi nor Boaz regain their fullness all at once. The comfort each of them seeks comes by virtue of individual acts of goodness, kindness, and compassion, retrieved, like the barley harvest, one sheaf at a time. The first, and perhaps most famous act of hesed, is Ruth’s initial kindness to Naomi: “Your people will be my people, where you go, I will go . . . .” Ruth understands that however she and her mother-in-law differed in age, origin, and otherwise, as widows, the two of them share far more, and in her understanding, Ruth looks beyond her loss to comfort Naomi.
Ruth’s act of hesed/kindness is repaid on that fateful day when, once in Israel, she goes out to glean in what turns out to be Boaz’s field. Boaz is impressed with Ruth and with what he has heard of her kindness to Naomi. He offers Ruth both blessing and protection as she gleans. Boaz has nothing to gain; his is a straightforward act of kindness and a mirror into Boaz’s soul. No matter the inner grief that he was experiencing, Boaz did not lose the ability to look outward and offer a helping hand to this young foreign woman.
The combination of Ruth’s industriousness and Boaz’s responsiveness prompts Naomi to set aside her all-consuming and self-declared bitterness and consider something that people in pain usually don’t see – a future. Naomi devises a plan to find a home for Ruth, not a simple task for her in that it involves finding a mate for her dead son’s widow, a task undoubtedly laden with all sorts of emotions. And yet she does exactly that. Like Ruth to Naomi, like Boaz to Ruth, Naomi breaks through the shell of her own sorrows in order to perform a grand act of kindness towards another.
And then, at night on the threshing floor, Ruth courageously presses beyond her comfort zone, reciprocating kindness to Boaz. “Blessed be the Lord,” Boaz tells Ruth, “your latest deed of kindness is greater than the first, in that you have not turned to younger men, whether poor or rich.” Boaz knows full well that Ruth has options; presumably Ruth knows, too. But Boaz is kin to Naomi by way of her late husband. I learned from my colleague Rabbi Eli Kaunfer this past week, that in the Middle Ages when a widow and a widower married, instead of the traditional seven wedding blessings mentioning Adam and Eve, an alternative blessing was substituted that referenced Boaz and Ruth. The love of Ruth and Boaz represents the possibility of love emerging following loss. Ruth and Boaz’s love signals what happens when two people recognize that despite loss, a person can extend an act of kindness and help lessen the loss of another.
Ruth to Naomi, Naomi to Ruth, Ruth to Boaz, and the community bearing witness to it all. Kindness begetting kindness, goodness generating further goodness. The power of the book of Ruth is that a virtuous cycle is created in which the emptiness of each character is “filled” by way of good deeds extended one to another. Lest we forget, the name Ruth has the same etymology as the word meaning “to fill,” as the cantor just chanted in the twenty-third psalm: Kosi r’vaya, “my cup overflows.” Ruth, both the book and the person, teach us that however aching our emptiness, it can be filled. No matter how empty we are, we can and perhaps must fill each other’s emptiness. We can fill each other up.
Let this be our charge this year in this Yizkor hour. In this holiday of first fruits, the baskets of our harvest are filled with the bounty of memory. We recall the kindnesses of those who came before us: their compassion, their wisdom, their sacrifice, and most of all their love. As we reflect on their lives, we are grateful, and we are filled with sadness at their loss – fullness and emptiness at the same time. It is important to be present in our sorrow, failing to do so would ignore not only the humanity of the person we mourn but our own humanity as well. And yet, we have learned from Ruth that we can assign meaning to the lives of our loved ones – and our own – by filling our days with acts of hesed / kindness. No matter the depth of our sorrow, none of us are emptyhanded; we can give of the fruits of our own good deeds – freely, selflessly and compassionately. No differently than a person, no matter their financial straits, is still obligated by Jewish law to give a token of tzedakah; so too a person, no matter their grief, should not abstain from the opportunity and obligation to ease the grief and pain of another person.
Together apart. This is who we are, this Yizkor, this Shavuot, this year, but really, always. Such is the limitation of being human: our joys, our sorrows, our lives understood by us and us alone. The holes left by the loss of our loved ones have only set us apart further. We feel our emptiness deeply. We cannot wish it away. So let us respond as did Ruth, as did Naomi, as did Boaz, as did our loved ones before us. Those whom we remember today, they too knew loss, and yet they nevertheless filled our lives with love. With acts of hesed one to the other to the other, let us fill each other up, from futility to fulfillment, from emptiness to overflow, the tears that are sown today to be reaped one day with joy.