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Returning to the Land (Of Normalcy)
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JOFA Blog

Returning to the Land (Of Normalcy)

Moments of crisis often make us see things through new lenses. And God knows, our world is in a moment of crisis now. I’ve always loved Megillat Rut because of its themes of the power of women’s relationships and the resilience and strength of women. But, this year I find myself focusing on another aspect of the book: the aspect of returning from exile. 

Megillat Rut opens with a famine in the Land of Israel which causes Elimelech and Naomi and their two sons Machlon and Chilyon to retreat to Moav. It turns out, though, that Moav cannot protect them from danger. By pasuk 5 of the first perek, Elimelech, Machlon and Chilyon have all died, leaving Naomi and her two daughters-in-law Ruth and Orpah, alone and bereft. In the very next pasuk, we read that Naomi decides to go back to Israel: 

וַתָּ֤קָם הִיא֙ וְכַלֹּתֶ֔יהָ וַתָּ֖שָׁב מִשְּׂדֵ֣י מוֹאָ֑ב כִּ֤י שָֽׁמְעָה֙ בִּשְׂדֵ֣ה מוֹאָ֔ב כִּֽי־פָקַ֤ד יְהוָה֙ אֶת־עַמּ֔וֹ לָתֵ֥ת לָהֶ֖ם לָֽחֶם׃

She started out with her daughters-in-law to return from the country of Moab; for in the country of Moab she had heard that God had taken note of God’s people and given them food.

The theme of return carries us through the whole first perek of Ruth. As Naomi discusses going back to Israel with her daughters-in-law and is ultimately accompanied by Ruth back to Israel, we see the use of the shoresh “shuv,” return no fewer than twelve times. 

I think you can probably see where I’m going with this. We too retreated from our previous lives into a new land, a Moav if you will, where we sought to escape and protect ourselves from the danger of Coronavirus. And, like Naomi and her family, many people found that their refuge could not fully protect them. Many still got sick. Many lost their jobs. Many have family members and friends who got sick and even lost their lives. And all of us have struggled with sadness and anxiety about a situation that is just unfathomably awful. 

And now, almost as if it was divinely ordained, we approach Shavuot just as state restrictions and shut downs begin to ease and lift. Like Naomi and Ruth, we too are faced with returning to the “land” that we left back in March.

And now, almost as if it was divinely ordained, we approach Shavuot just as state restrictions and shut downs begin to ease and lift. Like Naomi and Ruth, we too are faced with returning to the “land” that we left back in March. 

What lessons can we learn from Naomi and Ruth’s return from exile that can help us at this moment of trepidation and also of hope?

First, it goes without saying that we must learn the lesson of kindness. We are all fragile right now. Reentering will be hard. Just as Boaz quietly eased the path of Naomi and Ruth by ensuring Ruth’s ability to glean in his fields, we must also go out of our way to ease the path of others who may be struggling more than we are.

But there is another important lesson to be learned here. If you think about it, Ruth is not really returning. She is a Moabite woman who never lived in the Land of Israel before. Yet, in some of the most beautiful words in all of Tanach, she joins her destiny with that of her mother-in-law, saying 

אַל־תִּפְגְּעִי־בִ֔י לְעָזְבֵ֖ךְ לָשׁ֣וּב מֵאַחֲרָ֑יִךְ כִּ֠י אֶל־אֲשֶׁ֨ר תֵּלְכִ֜י אֵלֵ֗ךְ וּבַאֲשֶׁ֤ר תָּלִ֙ינִי֙ אָלִ֔ין עַמֵּ֣ךְ עַמִּ֔י וֵאלֹהַ֖יִךְ אֱלֹהָֽי׃בַּאֲשֶׁ֤ר תָּמ֙וּתִי֙ אָמ֔וּת וְשָׁ֖ם אֶקָּבֵ֑ר כֹּה֩ יַעֲשֶׂ֨ה יְהוָ֥ה לִי֙ וְכֹ֣ה יֹסִ֔יף כִּ֣י הַמָּ֔וֶת יַפְרִ֖יד בֵּינִ֥י וּבֵינֵֽךְ׃

“Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus and more may the LORD do to me if anything but death parts me from you.”

Ruth shows us the power of being part of something bigger than ourselves. Although she herself did not need to “return” to Eretz Yisrael, indeed could not “return” because she had never left, she tied her destiny to that of Naomi. And, she did not only tie herself to Naomi the individual, but she became part of Naomi’s nation and people. And in so doing became a “returner” herself. 

Each of us has been living in Moav for a few months now, and that experience has meant different things for us. Each of us carries our own anxiety about returning to the “Land of Normalcy” we left a few months ago.

Each of us has been living in Moav for a few months now, and that experience has meant different things for us. Each of us carries our own anxiety about returning to the “Land of Normalcy” we left a few months ago. (Indeed, does that land even exist anymore?) But, what if we could step beyond our own anxieties and fears and join together as a force of humanity, a unified people, to return together, even though we bring different stories to the table, different levels of suffering, different senses of returning or not returning? This is more than just being kind and empathetic toward the suffering of others. This is joining our destiny to that of our people – the Jewish people, the American people, or even all of humanity. Like Ruth, who returned with Naomi even though she had never been to the place to which she was returning, we too must see ourselves as part of something bigger in order to take this next big step. We will need to be part of a greater whole if we are to survive this, if we are to actually return to the Land of Normalcy again. None of us can do it alone. But, if we see ourselves as part of a greater whole, perhaps we can bring about redemption, just as a descendant of Ruth will someday do. 

 

Dr. Laura Shaw Frank is the Associate Director of Contemporary Jewish Life at the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and a member of JOFA’s Board of Directors.

 

Posts are contributed by third parties. The opinions and facts in them are presented solely by the authors and JOFA assumes no responsibility for them.

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