The Jewish people have a distinctive identity that is unique. The preordained defining qualities that characterize Jewish identity, is that our existence is begrudged by the rest of the world, and we dwell in perpetual isolation and aloneness. To best understand Jewish identity, one needs to deeply recognize the experience of the convert. The Jewish people are a nation of converts, because we originate from Avraham and Sarah who were converts. Our final redemption will come about through Ruth who was also a convert. The Book of Ruth speaks to our identity, as well as to our ancestral memories of sequestration and loss.
The story of Ruth is a narrative about a princess married into an alien culture. Through widowhood she becomes disenfranchised, a nomadic nobody. She is dispossessed of all her wealth and material belongings. She is dislodged from her home and dislocated from her familiar world. The forced migration of Ruth and Naomi is not merely a geographical one. It is also a flight to a new station in society, and to a new psychological and spiritual world.
She is left with a choice. Either to return to her roots and reclaim her identity and belonging as a Moabite princess, or wander in a foreign place, living in poverty off the abandoned gleanings from the harvest. She chooses to stay with her mother-in-law and embrace the life of a displaced person, bereft of status, identity, means, power or franchise. Her narrative is about the quintessential convert and the emblematic Jew.
At the moment of conversion, the individual becomes a discrete unitary entity, with no relatives or family ties. The convert has to forge an entirely new existence, where every aspect of life, including one’s very mentality and way of thinking, has to be reformulated.
In Ruth’s famous soliloquy, she pledges in order to learn her new identity and role, to emulate Naomi in every way. The hallmark of the unique qualities of the nation she is entering is shown in how she and Naomi were able to comfortably go into a stranger’s field and collect grain that has been deliberately disowned and left for the poor. In any other nation they would have been considered as trespassers and thieves. Not only that, but the stranger who owned the land, Boaz, becomes their benefactor, protector and even marries Ruth, who then becomes the great grandmother of King David from whose dynasty the Mashiach (Messiah) will arise.
This narrative has uncanny resonance and meaning in the world seized by global pandemic. The world that was, has been forced into a transformation through what is best described as a rite of passage.
The metaphor of a tsunami temporarily shifting the earth on its axis is an apt one to describe how this process started. It inaugurated what is in many respects a bereavement. The familiar landscape has been destroyed. It is as if overnight, everything that was taken for granted as normal, secure, and predictable has been put under threat or at least in question. Every aspect of our world, from human interaction, the world of work, shopping, travel, and financial life has been thrown into disarray. In many instances this crisis will lead to permanent changes to individual and societal lifestyles and modes of living in the world.
At the beginning there was shock and disorientation even amongst experts and leaders. For some that phase has not yet passed. For many there continues to be a sense of bewilderment and fear at the loss of our familiar reality and of being plunged into an uncertain future. One can sense the overt and implicit bereavement for many, as so much of what has been built and established, like businesses and jobs, are under threat or already gone. The losses suffered, through life having been altered inexorably, has affected society on the collective as well as on the personal level.
While our geographical and social locations have remained intact, emotionally we have been forced to migrate to an unfamiliar territory, for some in minor ways, and for others in dramatic ways. We are being forced against our will to relearn our lives all over again, adjusting to the unfolding and disconcertingly unpredictable new reality.
The work of mourning is all consuming. It involves every aspect of the person, the existential, physical, psychological and spiritual. Because the bedrock of one’s familiar world has been shattered, life suddenly appears more intimidating, complex and incoherent. It is natural and expected that in adjusting to loss one can be disorientated and overwhelmed to the point of at times feeling that one is losing one’s mind.
The first phase of this existential migration is the loss of the old order. This is followed by the protracted threshold or liminal phase in which the world now finds itself. It is a stage both of confusion and chaos, and at the same time infinite new possibilities and a new freedom to make choices that were previously not possible or worth the risk. As a result of this migration to a new territory in life, one is challenged and also granted the opportunity to reinvent oneself and in a sense relearn or recreate a preferred life. Eventually like the aftermath of the tsunami there is the promise of rebuilt lives and a new order that will be preferable to the one we left behind.
There is another dimension to the story of Ruth that applies to how we most effectively and elegantly navigate this existential transition. The key to appreciating the process of healing is to understand the role of Boaz in the story as being one of a consummate host. Boaz was attentive and responsive. He was attuned to vulnerability. He showed empathy, generosity and concern for the stranger and the widow. His solicitude showed in his curiosity, enquiring as he did about the history of the woman in his field, who they were and the nature and extent of the loss they had suffered. What he was estimating was what they needed to restore their wellbeing, dignity and sense of personal value.
Boaz in the ultimate act of generosity and kindness saw to it that Ruth was rewarded and recognised for her goodness, by enrolling her into his family and people. Boaz used his resources of authority and power to restore to Naomi and Ruth of what they through circumstances beyond their control had been robbed.
The story of Ruth should serve to sensitize one to the predicament of anyone in a precarious, uncertain, or foreign place. The Torah defines this existential status by the experience of the widow, the orphan and the stranger or convert. It is the experience of the disenfranchised and disposed, whether materially, socially, or emotionally.
In the current world circumstances, we ourselves could be falling into this category. The actions of Boaz as a host teach one how to respond to the person in this precarious no man’s land of uncertainly and loss. The hardest hit in the parallel pandemic of social isolation and aloneness are people who before this happened were vulnerable to being abandoned and forgotten. We have an individual and collective responsibility to ourselves, our families, communities, and the world at large to protect the vulnerable, to share what we have, to use whatever power we have to empower others. The imperilment that we are both witnessing and experiencing personally calls us to help ourselves and others by engaging our empathy, compassion and kindness to support, encourage and offer help in whatever way we are able.
There are opportunities all around us to emulate Boaz and become sensitized to the challenges and vulnerabilities of others and use our personal resources regardless of how humble or limited to rebuild the world. The global nature of this crisis has been humbling for many in a very profound and constructive way. It is as if suddenly a large number of people have been forced to see beyond their personal, local and parochial interests and discover a profound truth that was previously known only to the righteous few. The reality is that the entire planet is interconnected and interdependent. Never in history has a global event occurred that brought people to the realization that we are all in this together.
The earth is one big ecology with limited resources, that if monopolized and hoarded keep the majority in a vulnerable disempowered state. When material resources are pooled, when rivals collaborate to share experience and knowledge and people reach out in mutual concern and care then the benefit for everybody is incalculable.
The lesson that is begging to be learned, which is the essence of Judaism and the reason for our existence, is the lesson of Shalom. Each person who awakens to the call to create harmony and cooperation in the world takes humanity a step forward to that ultimate ideal for which we should all be striving to actualize. ■
The writer is a South Africa-based clinical psychologist, an organizational development consultant, expert witness and life coach who has appeared extensively on radio and television and hosted two radio shows on psychological matters. www.leonardcarr.com