‘Wherever you go, I go’: The Book of Ruth and Shavuot

Jewish ritual By Rabbi Jeremy Gordon 31st May 2022

We are on the cusp of Shavuot. The exodus, begun at Pesach, reaches the moment of revelation. But perhaps the most glorious Biblical text, associated with the holiday, is the Book of Ruth.

In this stunning novella Naomi loses both her sons and turns to her daughters-in-law and attempts to send them away. She is too old to have another husband, she tells them, and even if she were to remarry and have more sons, how could they possibly await their maturation? No, Naomi insists, she has nothing to offer these young women, and indeed Orpah does leave her. But Ruth does not.

Ruth’s response to being turned away is one of the great verses of the entire Torah,

‘‘Don’t entreat me to leave you; for wherever you go, I will go, where you will dwell, I will dwell, your people will be my people and your God will be my God. Where you die I will die and there will I be buried.’

It is a verse of utter commitment. We say to converts – in the blessing shared at the Bet Din, that they have ‘thrown their lot in with the people of the God of Abraham.’ Their model – our model – is Ruth.

Naomi has tried to send Ruth away, or at the very least void any responsibility she might feel to stay. She has, she says heart-wrenchingly, nothing to offer. But she has failed to understand Naomi’s commitment to her adopted family. Her commitment is not predicated on what she can get. It’s predicated on love. This is the stuff of Buber.

Martin Buber’s great work, I and Thou, suggests there are two kinds of relationships; ones founded on reciprocity – what is there in it for me – called ‘I-It’ relationships, and then there are the ‘I-Thou’ relationships, not predicated on reciprocity. In these latter, far more rich relationships, the things we do for others are done out of love of them, they are not selfish, they are not calculating, they are open hearted. This is why this story becomes such a touchstone for conversion to Judaism – we want converts who convert from love, not because of what they might get out of a relationship with Judaism. This is why this story is such a touchstone for any relationship with Judaism. Indeed any relationship at all. When we do things for love we make Ruth’s declaration – we go with you wherever you go. When we calculate, measure and plot we live our life as a series of I-It relationships. So, as we near Shavuot, come up the mountain, don’t calculate. Just leap.

Rabbi Jeremy Gordon is a rabbi at New London Synagogue. This piece is adapted from Rabbi Jeremy’s blog, rabbionanarrowbridge.blogspot.com, where you can explore more of his writing.

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