I wanted to say a few words about the great tragedy in our community last Thursday — the school bus accident that killed a student and a teacher. We mourn with the Williamson and Vargas families. We express our concern and offer prayers for those who had been injured and pray for their refuah shelamah — for their speedy recovery — and we wait for news and hope for the best. We know that life will go on but in the moment we know that things will never be the same.
I was glad to be at East Brook Middle School to try to help, and I was proud to represent our entire community. We are an important part of Paramus, and as one of its leading institutions we have been a part of the community response.
An event like this naturally raises important questions. We hear about these types of things all the time. Some community somewhere will face a similar calamity today. So Thursday it was a bus accident in New Jersey. Friday, another school shooting in Texas. We can ignore these things, or at least the theological challenges they raise, when we are removed from it. But in our own community?
So allow me share an idea with you that is based on a Shavuot observance. It had to do with the reading of Megillat Ruth—the Book of Ruth.
There is a common understanding that among other things, the Book of Ruth is a paean to conversion. When Naomi and her daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, face the prospect of a future as destitute widows in the land of Moab, Naomi implores her daughters-in-law to stay in Moab, reestablish families, and carry on with their lives. Orpah says good-bye, yet in some of the most stirring rhetoric in the Bible, Ruth tells Naomi that she will return to the land of Israel with her. “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge. Your people will be my people and your God my God.” Ruth remains the model of the righteous convert, and thus the Book of Ruth is the proof of the importance of conversion.
I want to suggest a different explanation about the meaning of Megillat Ruth, its significance on Shavuot, and why I am talking about it today in the context of our communal tragedy. A true understanding of the glory of Torah is contained within this precious section of the Bible.
The Book of Ruth begins with tragedy. There is a famine within the land of Israel. People are dying and society is falling apart. That’s what happened during times of famine in the ancient world. Remember what Abraham and Sarah are forced to endure when famine first drives them from the land of Israel? Naomi and her husband, Elimelech, go to Moab, an enemy of Israel, to survive. Then Elimelech dies. Their sons marry local women, Ruth and Orpah, and then the sons die and the women are left destitute and alone.
Naomi decides to return home. She makes an honorable and reasonable choice: to allow her daughters-in-law to return to their homes. Ruth refuses. She tells her mother-in-law she will not leave her for anything. In the midst of their pain and sadness they agree to stay together and help each other, and return to Israel.
Life in Israel is hard. Ruth goes out to find food for them, and soon she is surprised by the kindness she is shown by a relative of Naomi’s late husband, the honorable and virtuous Boaz. He not only offers her kindness but warns his workers not to bother her. When she asks why Boaz is being so nice to her, an alien, a widow, Boaz tells her, “I have had a full report for all you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband, how you left your father and mother and the land you were born in and came to a people whom you had never known before. May the Lord reward your work.” Boaz responded to Ruth’s difficult plight with respect and kindness that she could not have possibly anticipated. And later in what is admittedly one of the most enigmatic scenes in the entire Bible, when Naomi encourages Ruth to either (a) seduce, or (b) trap, or c) propose marriage to Boaz (because that’s what poor people do when they are in danger of starving, something that thank God we know nothing of, but what some of our grandparents actually did,) something wonderful happens. Boaz praises her loyalty and promises to do all that she asked, all the while looking out for her safety and virtue.
The point of the Book of Ruth and the reason we read it on the holiday that celebrates the giving of the Torah is that against the backdrop of loss, evil, and sexual immorality, this is a story of a people acting righteously, even under the most difficult of circumstances, and those acts of righteousness transform their world. The heroes in the Book of Ruth are ordinary people whose actions are motivated by a real and honest concern for the welfare of others, whether family or strangers. The Book of Ruth is a metaphor for the entire Torah: living responsibly, caring about others, responding to real human needs of all in the community not only will bring rewards—it is the reward.
As our rabbis teach, mitzvah goreret mitzvah, one mitzvah leads to the performance of another mitzvah. Such acts of righteousness can transform the world and as Ruth teaches, transform the bitterness of today into tomorrow’s possibilities.
Admittedly this wasn’t what was on my mind as I assisted with the emergency response at East Brook Middle School on Thursday. But I have to tell you that seeing the response of our local police, fire department, EMS, the staff of the mayor’s office, the county executive, the governor of New Jersey all coming together was beautiful despite the horror of the moment. They were all there to assist and comfort. Their actions could do no more to reverse the loss of life than Boaz could bring back Naomi’s dead husband. But the future for the families who were so personally affected is yet to be written. And though what they are experiencing is painful and difficult, they do not experience it alone.
I can’t know what that future is going to be like. But what 30 years in the rabbinate has taught me, whether in the pulpit or in the military, is that simple acts of compassion and righteousness, people doing the right and kind thing, just like Naomi and Ruth and Boaz did, will make a real difference in helping the survivors cope and eventually move on with their lives.
Reading the Book of Ruth on Shavuot challenges us in the same way. It reminds us that it is the Torah’s message and our eternal responsibility to rise above what is petty, immoral, and evil, and do what is good and right. That’s why the Torah was given to the Jewish people. Torah reminds us not only who we actually are, but what we yet might be.
Our efforts to live our truth and fulfill our responsibilities will not guarantee a pain-free life for ourselves or anyone else. Yet what it does guarantee are people and institutions that will be there to help us, no matter what life may throw at us.
Rabbi Arthur Weiner is the rabbi of the Jewish Community Center of Paramus/Congregation Beth Tikvah. He is also a chaplain for the Paramus fire department.