Love in the Shadow of Death: The Story of Ruth

The very foundation of Jewish history is redemption; it is the story of a people who, despite having every reason to be bitter and cynical, continued to rebuild and repair.

| Topics: Bible
Photo: Yossi Zamir/Flash90

All of life is a footnote to love and death. These two poles of existence overshadow everything else; love creates life and death takes it away, filling our lives with joy and sorrow in unending succession.

It is easiest to consider love and death separately, as two very different chapters of life; and emotionally, they are worlds apart. Halachah is a reflection of this instinct, treating mourning and celebration as irreconcilable opposites. Mourners don’t attend celebrations and parties, and the joy of the holidays terminates shiva. The heart cannot accommodate both joy and grief at the same time, because both love and death inspire intense, all-encompassing emotions.

Love is intoxicating. Shir Hashirim, the “Song of Songs,” portrays the exceptional power of love through a depiction of couples who are “lovesick” and unable to act rationally. And this reality repeats itself over and over in history. When Jacob falls in love with Rachel, he dramatically overpays for her dowry, offering to work seven full years for her hand. Even so, Jacob imagines that he is the one who is getting a bargain because he is so much in love with Rachel; the seven years seem like a small price to pay for Rachel’s hand in marriage. Jacob is blinded by love.

William Blake captures this mindless blindness in a short poem: “Love to faults is always blind, Always is to joy inclin’d, Lawless, wing’d and unconfin’d, And breaks all chains from every mind.” Love hatches remarkable dreams that fly in every direction; with love nothing seems impossible. Lovers are oblivious to reality and live in their own two-person universe, just like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

Death brings a blindness of its own. When King Solomon writes the book of Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, he begins with a lament about the pointlessness of life. As Rashi puts it, “The author of Kohelet issues a complaint against the seven days of creation, that [the world] is all a vanity of vanities.” Death, the question without an answer, confounds him. What point does life have, Kohelet asks, if the righteous man meets the same end as the wicked, and the wise man has the same fate as an animal? (The bitter, skeptical tone of Kohelet seems out of place in the Tanakh. I sometimes wonder if the purpose of Kohelet is to expose us to our own bitterness and cynicism, to recognize that hope will disintegrate without faith.)

Whenever one looks death in the eye, optimism and joy quickly evaporate. Franz Rosenzweig notes how life stands in the shadow of death, and “all that is mortal lives in fear of death … each newly born waits with fear and trembling for the day of its passage into the dark … every new birth multiplies the fear … for it multiplies that which is mortal.” When one enters the realm of death, a cold cynicism descends, choking off any experience of joy.

The poetry of Shir Hashirim and the acerbic philosophy of Kohelet each deserve their own book. They faithfully explore the experiences of passion and despair. And because the emotions of joy and grief are opposites, we assume that the experiences of love and death are utterly incompatible. But they are not.

A third biblical book, the Book of Ruth, brings death and love together. In it, a family moves from Israel to Moab, where the sons take Moabite wives for themselves. In short succession, this family is devastated by death with the father and his two sons passing away at a young age. Alone and impoverished, one of the sons’ wives, Ruth, returns with her beloved mother-in-law, Naomi, to Israel, abandoning her homeland to remain with her. Ruth persists despite discrimination and desperation, and insists that she will perpetuate her husband’s family’s legacy; and in the end, she does just that. She marries a relative of her husband’s, Boaz, and the family continues: Their great-grandson is King David.

The Book of Ruth is not just a book of love and death; it is a book about a different type of love, love in the shadow of death. After the family’s tragedies, Naomi succumbs to cynicism; she even suggests she should rename herself “bitter.” Ruth refuses this path; she battles with the angel of death. Ruth teaches us how to pursue redemption in the valley of the shadow of death.

The Hebrew word for “redemption,” ga’al, appears multiple times in the book of Ruth because it is a book about redemptions, both large and small. By remarrying and bringing grandchildren to Naomi, Ruth redeems and rebuilds a once broken family. And later, her descendant King David will be the very symbol of Messianic redemption and bring redemption to the nation as a whole.

Ordinarily, death erases life and destroys all that love has built. But in redemption, it is love that gets the final word, staying one step ahead in a cosmic wrestling match. It is when you continue to love after a tragedy, when you courageously pour your broken heart into rebuilding a broken world, you have taken the first steps on the road to redemption.

The very foundation of Jewish history is redemption; it is the story of a people who, despite having every reason to be bitter and cynical, continued to rebuild and repair. This has never been more evident than in the past century. Crushed by the Holocaust, it would have made sense for the Jews to give up. Instead, following Ruth’s example, they built the State of Israel, a modern-day miracle of redemption.

Last week I joined the Ramaz Upper School mission to Israel, together with nearly 500 students and teachers. Israel is filled with stories of redemption, both large and small. At Tel-a-Saki—the sight of one of the fiercest battles of the Yom Kippur War—we were told about the heroism of the soldiers who fought there. Three tanks, under the command of Yoav Yakir, held off hundreds of Syrian tanks for nearly two days, giving the army precious time to reinforce their defenses on the Golan Heights. Even after it became clear that they were no longer able to hold off the Syrians, Yoav chose to fight as long as possible and fell in battle.

After the war, a member of Yoav’s unit, Yitzchak Nagarker, had a baby boy. (Yitzchak is a war hero in his own right, with his own incredible story of courage.) At the brit, Yitzchak invited Yoav’s father to be the sandak and named his first born Yoav, in honor of his fallen comrade. “Love is as strong as death,” and is the very instrument of redemption, and Yoav’s legacy continues to live on in Yitzchak’s son.

Our mission prayed at the Kotel on Friday night, just a day before Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day. Through hundreds of years of exile, the passion the Jewish people had for Jerusalem never wavered. They continued to dream of this place, to declare L’shanah haba’ah b’yerushalayim, “next year in Jerusalem.” And on June 7, 1967, for the first time in 1900 years, that dream came true. An Israeli flag was raised over the Kotel. With tears in their eyes, the exiles had returned to Zion. The Kotel is the ultimate monument to redemption, and its stones whisper, “Am Yisrael Chai,” the Jewish people live on.

After services on Friday night, the Ramaz students gathered in the plaza, waiting to walk together as a group to Shabbat dinner. Then something remarkable happened. They gathered together in one large circle, singing Jewish songs for half an hour; other visitors came over to watch this moment of inspiration. At that moment, the students were making Ruth’s legacy their own. They were singing the song of redemption, continuing an undying love story that has lasted for thousands of years.

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is the senior rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York.

This article was originally published by the Jewish Journal.

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