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?

Perhaps an even more profound question is posed: You are released from the previous covenant--acceptance--for how can God bind you to it if God will not protect you? What say you now, people of Israel?

Quietly, gently--for one can make no demands on survivors--the story of Ruth is told. The pain is not in vain. The tale is not told by an idiot; it is not full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Out of the barren, blood-drenched rocks there grows a flower. A flower from the stock of Jesse. One can dream that:

            "A shoot shall grow out of the stump of Jesse,

  a twig shall branch off from his stock…

The spirit of the Lord shall alight upon him--a spirit of wisdom and insight…

He shall sense the truth…

He shall judge the poor with equity and decide with justice

  for the lowly of the land…

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid…

With a little boy to herd them…

They shall not hurt nor destroy in My holy mountain

For the earth shall be full of devotion to the Lord…" (Isaiah 11).

The answer to the question of whether there is a limit to the covenant commitment has been given by the Jewish people in its post-Holocaust behavior. Since life is infinite, the commitment is infinite. No setback, no loss has proven strong enough to destroy the covenant. By living on as Jews, Jews dare to affirm the final realization and to bring perfection closer.

If we understand and accept the story of Ruth, we understand that we can accept the covenant--again. We understand that suffering is connected to redemption by a love more powerful than death. We understand that messianic possibility is born in the generation in which all is destroyed.

Can there be any question but that Ruth lives in our own time? Or that this generation's response to the creation of Israel means that we stand before Sinai again--all of us: those who died, those who live, those who are as yet unborn?

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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).