WHO AM I?
Rabbi David Walk
One Shavuot in the late 90's Rabbi Chaim Halevi Brovender gave a three-part lecture on Megillat Rut. His point was that the true hero of the tale was Naomi. At that point in time, I was making the announcements at the Yeshiva. So, I announced that the final installment of the shiur on Megillat Naomi would be later that afternoon. He found it annoying. The truth is that I never really understood his point until I heard him speak again on this topic this year, two decades later.
BTW this epiphany has helped me to understand another conundrum which has been bothering me. The final verse of Psalm 19 is very famous, 'May the sayings of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable before You, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.' The two names for God, tzuri and go'ali, seem to contradict each other. God as the Rock is the immoveable object, the perfectly stable foundation for all Creation. On the other hand, the name Redeemer implies the One who changes things for the better. Redemption is about a revolution towards fulfillment. So, in the same verse, we refer to God as both unchanging and changing. It's enough to cross a rabbi's eyes. Before we work on that problem we have to go back to Megillat Rut.
In this megilla, a curious thing happens. We have some trouble separating Naomi from Rut. At the end of chapter 1, they both arrive back in Beit Lechem, but it appears that the crowd only notices Naomi. The women ask 'Can this be Naomi?' Didn't they notice Rut the beautiful young stranger? Even more remarkable is the confusion in chapter 4, when the baby is born, Naomi takes the baby and apparently nurses him. Then all the women proclaim, 'A son is born to Naomi!' This is weird. How must Rut feel about this? I think that she felt fine, because in some way Rut has merged with Naomi. They have become interchangeable parts. Two entities have formed one identity. When did this happen? What happened to the original Rut?
To understand this phenomenon, we must go back to chapter one. Naomi tells the two daughters in law that they will be better off remaining in Moav. Orpah heeds this solid advice, but Rut feels a growing attachment to Naomi and all she stands for. This brings us to the famous declaration of Rut: Do not urge me to leave you to return to who I was before. For wherever you go, I will go. Wherever you lodge, I will lodge. Your people are my people; your God is my God. Where you die, I will die and there be buried. I swear to God that only death will part us (1:16-17). This is a commitment to the Jewish people, this is a commitment to God, but mostly this is a commitment to Naomi. At that moment she is resolved to emulate and even become Naomi. She is resolved to leave her former self behind and exchange it for the Naomi model.
There's a scene from the second Jurassic park movie which I can't separate from this concept. The nephew of the founder of Jurassic Park has told the scientist played by Jeff Goldblum that he won't repeat the mistakes of his uncle, and therefore his plans are safe. Goldblum presciently scoffs. Later in the film when chaos strikes San Diego, California because a T-Rex got loose, there's a scene when the shocked nephew is told by a creepy Jeff Goldblum, 'Now you've become your uncle!' Most of us have such moments in our lives. The first time I went around the house turning off lights in rooms without inhabitants, Jeff Goldblum's creepy voice went off in my brain, 'Now you've become your father!'
For most of us this scenario isn't planned. We are just apples which haven't fallen very far from the tree. But in the case of Rut, this goal has become her raison d'etre. She yearns to be everything which Naomi stands for. And Naomi stands for the continuity of the Jewish people. Naomi stands for kindness and tradition and community and family and Torah values. Rut wants to be transformed into that persona.
There's another oddity in the megilla. That word geula, meaning redeemer or redemption, just keeps getting repeated. In the first 8 verses of chapter 4, the word in its various forms appears 14 times. What's the point? Clearly, this experience and process is for the purpose of redeeming Rut in every sense of the term. She is changing from a Moabite to an Israelite, from a maiden to a mother, from an orphan to a daughter. This transformation from outsider to respected member of the community, from cocoon to butterfly is a fulfillment of her commitment to be like Naomi.
Redemption is a revolution in one's status, from slave to freeman, from sinner to saint, from stranger to colleague. However, according to Judaism, this revolution is in the context of a return to an age-old promise. This promise is the Covenant of Abraham; this promise is the Torah of Sinai. Now, we can understand the last verse of Psalm 19. God can be the revolution and the steadfast foundation, because the revolution brings us back to the original, permanent deal made by God with our ancestors.
Every Shavuot we reenact that covenantal event at Sinai, because we want to live up to its principles. Every Shavuot we recommit to that deal made by our revered forebears. We try to become them, so we read Megillat Rut to see how it's done.