I am so deeply disturbed about the events of this summer. It seems like all we Jews have been experiencing is misery. I do not know how to get out of this overwhelming sense of sadness and depression. Is the situation in Israel never going to get better? Are we always going to be victimized as Jews? Please help me to find some relief and hope.
Recent events have certainly been painful and have arrived in quick succession. I do not know anyone who is not feeling the despair that you describe. The prophet Amos expresses it this way:
“As a man who runs from a lion, to be attacked by a bear and gets into his house, leans with his hand on the wall, and is bitten by a snake.” We humans, so enamored with the illusive feelings of security, are foiled yet again.
I recall with no small degree of angst my sensation of the world caving in when an early call from Israel woke us up. I frantically leaped to put the television on that morning of September 11, 2001. Our family had just returned from a year in Israel, a year known as the first of the Second Intifada.
It was months punctuated with horrific acts of terror, each more dreadful than the previous: bus rides became acts of bravery; eating in an outdoor café in downtown Jerusalem was heroic. Each week brought new brutal inhumane forms of terror.
As summer ended, I confess I was looking forward to the security of the United States, to entering a mall without purse checks and to sending children off to school without primal fears of them not returning. I learned a painful traumatic lesson that morning as I watched, but could not believe, the second jet hit the twin towers. It was as if the carpet had been ripped violently from beneath my feet.
What, terror here in America? This rude awakening returned uninvited with a wicked vengeance this month. As a community, we were already in anguish about the situation in Israel and then, as Amos describes, thinking we are safe at home we are bitten by the snake.
How do we deal with the pain? Where can we find comfort and healing? I can only struggle together with everyone else in a search for answers. A seemingly light book from our scriptures comes to mind. One that is generally seen as sweet and perhaps pastoral, but as Aviva Zorenberg points out, the Book of Ruth is as laden with tragedy as is the Book of Job.
But Ruth also reverberates with comfort and lessons on healing. It is a story that stands as a strong rejoinder to calamity and its ancient tale casts honor upon Pam Waechter, of blessed memory. As Rabbi Jim Mirel read from the verses in his eulogy for Pam, I was deeply moved. He quoted an oft-cited affirmation that Ruth lovingly pronounces to her mother-in-law, Naomi:
“Entreat me not to leave thee, and to return from following after thee; for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God; where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried.”
The poignancy of the selection was almost too much to bear. Pam Waechter was a woman who had chosen to be Jewish and whose choice of God and people had indeed led to her place of death. Until then I had held myself together. But the very realness of her faith being her fate was too raw. Joining the destiny of the Jewish people has historically been about belief but also about courage — our destiny is a destiny of promise that bears no insignificant risk.
In the first five verses of Ruth, Naomi is transformed in a shocking Job-like fashion from wealthy matriarchal prominence to dire widowhood, a grief-stricken mother who has buried two sons. Naomi is abandoned by one daughter-in-law and joined by the other, Ruth. As they move through the story we can learn three powerful lessons from their responses to grief: they mourn, they perform grand acts of kindness and they build with hope for the future.
Together they traverse the path traveled 10 years earlier and cross into the land of Israel from the fields of Moab. Upon her return, Naomi declares to her former neighbors, “Call me not Naomi, call me Marah, for the Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, and the Lord hath brought me back home empty.”
There is no shame in heartache and no indignity in sorrow. Let us not be shy in our sadness, let us mourn with voice. Certainly we are in a time of grief and confusion. We were full we are now empty.
But Ruth is more than mourning. The Midrash wonders why it is in the canon, but it stands proudly in scripture for one reason alone: to teach us the power of acts of loving kindness. It is a book occupied almost pathologically with chesed, kindness. Ruth’s self-sacrificing cleaving to Naomi begins the tale of love and of kindness, and continues as she goes gleaning among the paupers to feed Naomi. The antidote to tragedy is redemptive acts of love.
Each of us must now take on some act of repair. In that that gigantic mysterious metaphysical world there has been a dreadful miserable breach. The kindest of persons was hunted and brutalized, the innocent were maimed, and the good were violated. Take something on — volunteer to do some gleaning of your own. Go where you have never gone before and in those acts you will find relief.
Finally, the future: Ruth and Naomi learn how to heal. Together they conspire to force the future. A few female ablutions and the plan is underway. Boaz recognizes Ruth’s exquisite character and the love between Boaz and Ruth becomes the love that births the future leadership of Israel. There is no wallowing here. Mourning and loving kindness give way to the embrace of life.
Though this summer is a summer of our discontent, let us hope for better days. Let us banish the lion, the bear and the snake with ultimate acts of loving kindness and may they serve as the foundation upon which we will construct a future of peace and security.
Rivy Poupko Kletenik is an internationally renowned educator and Judaic Principal at the Seattle Hebrew Academy. If you have a question that’s been tickling your brain, send Rivy an email at email@example.com.