With over thirty-six million inhabitants and nearly four hundred and thirty million annual tourists commuting in and out of Tokyo on a regular basis, public transit in the world’s most populous city is an absolute nightmare. Every subway is packed to maximum capacity. There to ensure that this is the case are the “pushers:” local officials wearing beige jackets and white gloves who literally shove as many passengers as possible into each train before giving the OK for its doors to close. But at Shibuya Railway Station, amidst this pandemonium, sits an unassuming bronze statue of a dog name Hachikō. Hachikō was a golden brown Akita who was taken in as a pet by Professor Hidesaburō Ueno in 1924. At the end of each day, Hachikō used to greet Ueno at his stop in Shibuya Station. Then, on May 21, 1925, Ueno didn’t show up – he had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and had died while at work. His dog, of course, couldn’t understand what had happened. So he continued his routine. For the next nine years, Hachikō appeared at Shibuya Station precisely when Ueno’s train was due to arrive, faithfully awaiting his master’s return.
In Japan, Hachikō’s devotion to the deceased is legendary. In Jewish tradition, loyalty of this kind is referred to as a חסד של אמת: a “true act of loving-kindness.” The Biblical story which best typifies this behavior is retold in the Book of Ruth, which we read on the upcoming holiday of Shavuot. When famine ravages the land of Judea, Elimelech, Naomi, and their two sons immigrate to Moab. Elimelech dies. His sons marry Moabite women – Ruth and Orpah – but then they, too, die, leaving Naomi alone with her two non-Jewish daughters-in-law. At this point, Naomi decides to return to Judea. Her daughters-in-law offer to accompany her, but, not wanting to burden them, Naomi encourages them to stay behind and rebuild their lives in Moab. Ruth refuses. Instead of pursuing a brighter future in her homeland, she follows her elderly mother-in-law to Judea where she is forced to collect handouts in order to provide for both. Boaz, a distant relative of Naomi’s, hears of Ruth’s altruism and is moved by it. He proposes to her, the two get married, and – as we read in the book’s epilogue – it is from this union that David and the rest of the Judean monarchs are ultimately born.
The story of Ruth is a beautiful one. But why do we read it on Shavuot, the holiday on which we celebrate the giving of the Torah? When Ruth decides to move to Judea she also commits to joining the Jewish religion. In this sense, she accepts the Torah upon herself much like our ancestors did at the foot of Mount Sinai. Perhaps this is the most fundamental connection between Ruth and the festival of Shavuot.
Yet the Book of Ruth isn’t a “conversion memoir” in the way that, say, Augustine’s Confessions is. Ruth doesn’t come to Judaism through a process of philosophical enquiry or of soul-searching. She doesn’t experience a moment of spiritual epiphany or suddenly “see the light.” In fact, we find only one passing reference to her religious convictions in the entire book:
And Ruth said to Naomi, “Do not entreat me to leave you, to return from following you, for wherever you go, I will go, and wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people and your God my God.” (Ruth 1:16).
The order in which Ruth professes her loyalties to Naomi is most telling. First comes Ruth’s commitment to Naomi herself. Then comes Ruth’s commitment to Naomi’s people. Only afterwards comes Ruth’s commitment to Naomi’s God. At least initially, it seems, Ruth’s connection to Judaism is not a theological one – it is a human one. She doesn’t know Judaism, but she does know Naomi. She’s not inspired by a particular Jewish text or a specific Jewish ritual. It is Ruth’s relationship with a single Jewish person that moves her.
That’s interesting, because when we think about the holiday of Shavuot, we can’t help asking an obvious question: God may have spoken to our ancestors, and that’s great – but how are the rest of us, who never receive direct revelation, supposed to find Him in our lives? The protagonist in Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra was quite bothered by this problem. Like Moses, Zarathustra climbed a mountain looking for enlightenment – but unlike Moses, he didn’t hear any call from on high. Disappointed, he returned to his village and announced that “God is dead.” Zarathustra then encouraged his followers to abandon what he called the “old morality.” In his view, man now had to strive to become an Übermensch (i.e. a “Beyond-Man”): someone who is beyond good and evil. That was Nietzsche’s way of dealing with a world in which God’s presence is not plainly manifest.
The Book of Ruth offers us a different approach. A fact often forgotten about this book is that it is one of only two narrative texts in the entire Tanakh in which God’s presence is not centrally felt: He does not communicate with anybody, and, other than a passing reference at the very end of the story to His role in helping Naomi conceive, the book’s events unfold without any mention of His involvement, direction, or even providence. But the characters, for their part, are constantly mentioning His name – none more so than Boaz, the book’s co-protagonist. We meet Boaz in the book’s second chapter when he is paying a visit to the men harvesting his field. The very first words out of his mouth are ה’ עמכם – “God is with you.” These words do nothing to advance the plot and relatively little in developing Boaz’s character. What, then, is their function in the overall narrative?
In fact, Boaz’s greeting expresses the theme of the entire book. Never again after Sinai can the average person expect to hear from the “God out there.” Instead, our task becomes to search for the “God in here” – to recognize, in the words of the Kotzker Rebbe, that “God is where you let Him in.” ועשו לי מקדש, ושכנתי בתוכם, God tells us in the days after the Revelation at Sinai: Now that we have heard God’s voice, we are charged with spreading its message. No longer may we rely on God to announce Himself through open miracles. To make God’s presence felt on earth, we must conduct ourselves in a godly fashion. Our acts of kindness and of charity, of sensitivity and of selflessness, of compassion and of healing – it is through these that we testify to God’s existence; through these that we fulfill our mandate as a ממלכת כהנים. Or, in the words of Boaz, “ה’ עמכם:” to find God, we have to look within ourselves.
This was a lesson which R. Aharon Lichtenstein learned firsthand. R. Lichtenstein is one of the most respected Orthodox rabbis in America and Israel. He serves as the dean of Yeshivat Har Etzion and just a few months ago was awarded the Israel Prize – the state’s highest honor – for his contribution to Torah literature. But, as he reflects in By His Light, there was a time when his connection to God and to Judaism did not come as easily:
I recall in my late adolescence there were certain [theological] problems which perturbed me, the way they perturb many others. At the time, I resolved them all in one fell swoop. I had just read Rav Zevin’s book, Ishim Ve-shitot. In his essay on Rav Chayim Soloveitchik, he deals not only with his methodological development, but also with his personality and gemilut chasadim (acts of kindness). He recounted that Reb Chayim used to check every morning if some unfortunate woman had placed an infant waif on his doorstep during the course of the night. (In Brisk, it used to happen at times that a woman would give birth illegitimately and leave her infant in the hands of Reb Chayim.) As I read the stories about Reb Chayim’s extraordinary kindness, I said to myself: Do I approach this level of gemilut chasadim? I don’t even dream of it! In terms of moral sensibility, concern for human beings and sensitivity to human suffering, I am nothing compared to Reb Chayim. Yet despite his moral sensitivity, he managed to live, and live deeply, with the totality of Halakha—including the commands [which challenge my moral sensitivities] and all the other things which bother me. How? The answer, I thought, was obvious. It is not that his moral sensitivity was less [than mine], but [that] his yirat Shamayim, his emuna [i.e. his connection to God] was so much more.
In the final analysis, then, Naomi is the unsung hero of the Book of Ruth. Ruth certainly deserves credit for the love that she showed to her mother-in-law and for taking a leap of faith to join the Jewish people and their God. Yet her mother-in-law also deserves credit for inspiring that sort of response. It takes tremendous self-sacrifice to turn down the long-term assistance offered to you by your daughters-in-law – the only two people left in your life – because you’re thinking about their future instead of yours. That’s what Naomi did. We can only assume that it was this sort of other-orientedness which over time led Ruth to admire her mother-in-law with such remarkable resolve. Naomi’s name, after all, means “pleasantness,” and like all of the names in this text, it is loaded with meaning. דרכיה דרכי נעם: Her ways, like those of the Torah which she represented, were ways of pleasantness. Naomi wasn’t an Übermensch – she was simply a mensch.
To find God, that’s all one needs to be.
Chag Shavuot Sameach!