Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Ruth of La Mancha

I posted a derashah on this topic for Shavuos a few years ago, but I think the core idea bears repeating with this column that appears in this week's Toronto Torah:

Ruth had been ruined by her life with Jews; her wealthy husband had died, along with his brother and father, and the family’s wealth was gone. Now her mother-in-law was preparing to return to a place where Moabites were persona non grata - and Ruth insisted on accompanying her.

Naami was astounded; what practical gain could be in store for an impoverished, friendless Moabite in a Jewish land? But Ruth insisted, “Don’t plead with me to leave you, to cease following you . Where you will go, I will go.” The book of Ruth doesn’t tell us what inspired her, only that she was idealistically certain that this was the nation and the G-d to whom she would commit her life.

Judaism tends toward the pragmatic: We focus on this world rather than meditate on reward in the afterlife. We save lives in violation of most mitzvot. We recognize civil government.

Nonetheless, Judaism has a long history of honouring the quixotic charge of the idealist: Avraham and Sarah welcomed strangers in the name of Gd. The Jews declared, “We will do and we will hear,” pledging obedience to a law they did not yet know. Our vision of Mashiach is of a pauper riding a donkey.

To borrow a passage from Man of La Mancha, “Maddest of all [is] to see life as it is, and not as it should be.” This idealism is a most Jewish concept; Judaism nods to the pragmatic, but it reveres the idealistic.

We have just finished commemorating a seven-week trek during which an entire nation was challenged to metamorphose from slaves into idealists. A slave cannot afford ideology, and throughout the desert trek a slavish pragmatism was quite visible; the constant attention to food and water reflected a mind that could not see past its most immediate needs. But, eventually, this nation stood at Sinai and established that idealism which would become Ruth’s mark.

On Shavuot we read Ruth’s story, and challenge ourselves: Will we establish that idealism, too?