The gift of Ruth: cleaving to social intimacy

  • AdinaRothNew
It feels strange to be approaching Shavuot having had very little meaningful contact with people outside my immediate family since before Pesach.
by ADINA ROTH | May 21, 2020

There were so many good efforts at the beginning, cloaked in things like homemade pizza, the best of banana bread, and three-hour Monopoly games. But now it feels as if things are fraying at the edges.

We are giving our very best to home schooling, but my 10-year-old misses her friends terribly, and I find myself also wondering about having a good long conversation with a friend over coffee.

When I do scroll through social media, I get very upset at anyone who uses terms like “new normal”. How can this level of social distancing ever be “normal”.

The book of Ruth, which we read on Shavuot has some of the greatest lessons to teach us about intimacy and friendship. The text opens up in Israelite country, in the barren wasteland in Bethlehem. A famine devastates the land, and one of the most well-to-do men takes his family and leaves for Moav, lest, we are told by the Midrash, the poor come begging at his door.

In Moav, this man and his two sons die, and his wife, Naomi, is left with two Moabite daughters-in-law. Bereft, Naomi starts to make her way back to Bethlehem with Orpah and Ruth following after her.

On the way, Naomi turns to them and entreats them to return to Moav. In her rationale, Naomi explains that she has nothing to give these women in terms of prospective husbands.

She urges them, “Don’t come with me, for what do I have to offer you?”

Here we pick up on Naomi’s psychological state. Without sons to give these women, she doesn’t believe herself to be of any value. She doesn’t feel worthy of them following her.

The one daughter-in-law, Orpah, hears Naomi’s reasons and decides to return to Moav. However, we are told that Ruth “cleaved” to Naomi, refusing to leave her. The Hebrew word “cleave”, “davkah”, is a significant verb in the Torah.

Very early in the Bible in Genesis, after man and woman are created, we are told, “therefore shall a man leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife”. What’s more, in Deuteronomy, we are told, “Those that cleave to G-d are alive today.” A mystical Jewish practice called deveikut introduces the concept of a union or merging between the human being and G-d.

When we are in the realm of cleaving, be it between husband and wife, G-d and human, or in the case of Ruth, cleaving between two friends, we are in a realm of profound feeling and soulful potential.

Therefore, the word “davkah” signals to us that Ruth’s devotion to Naomi is profound. She hears Naomi saying to her, “I have nothing to give you, you have no future with me”, and yet, she attaches herself to Naomi.

It seems to me that this is the first moment of genuine friendship in the Tanach, a connection that isn’t bound by exchange, rivalry, or competition.

In some ways, it’s a friendship that steps outside the confines of the patriarchal system in which they are born. The image for their friendship – that of “cleaving” – implies a physical kind of mapping of one onto the other’s body in a protective holding.

It seems that Ruth recognises Naomi’s devastation, and her response is unconditional love. Linguistically, the word “davkah” elevates this type of deep friendship to the union of husband and wife (davak) or even to one’s connection to G-d (deveikut). And who of us have not felt close to G-d when we had a really amazing conversation with a friend over coffee?

Although Naomi doesn’t experience an immediate healing, Ruth’s choosing of Naomi marks the beginning of her tentative healing from her grief. At the end of the story, the women in Bethlehem exclaim to Naomi how fortunate she is to have a daughter-in-law whom she loves, who is more precious to her than seven sons.

The rabbinic tradition posits Ruth as the archetypal convert, and many say that this is why we read the book of Ruth on Shavuot. However, if friendship is at the heart of this book, we might want to consider social intimacy as a value that needs to be cultivated at the heart of Jewish life.

Indeed, our concept of shul, of comforting mourners, of dancing at a wedding, of sharing a Shabbat dinner, and of visiting the sick, all imply that Judaism is built on this concept of “davkah”, cultivating practices that forge deep bonds with people.

For us as Jews, social distancing is a necessary evil, but it can never be the new normal. Rather, social intimacy is a spiritual, even G-dly aspiration.

At this time on Shavuot, as we consider the receiving of the Torah and the mitzvot, let us remember this important Jewish value and hold it dear, even as we must – temporarily – be cautious for the sake of pikuach nefesh (the preservation of human life).

Indeed, Ruth’s message to us is surely that social intimacy is a practice upon which the integrity of our religious life – and perhaps even our world – depends.

  • Adina Roth is a clinical psychologist in private practice, and a teacher of Jewish Studies. She runs an independent Barmitzvah and Batmitzvah programme in Johannesburg, and teaches Tanach to adults. She is also a teacher at Melton in Johannesburg. Adina will present at eLimmud South Africa on 31 May.

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