June 9, 2005
Shavuot - Ruth’s Tale Provides Contemporary Guide
"Second Chances: Transforming the Bitterness of Hope and the Story of Ruth," by Rabbi Levi Meier (Urim Publications, $19.95)
Rabbi Levi Meier is fond of saying that we are all on a journey, whether or not we know it. Of course, he is referring to life itself, and in his latest book, Meier illuminates that journey by looking at the compelling and sometimes tragic life of the biblical figure of Ruth. His book, "Second Chances: Transforming the Bitterness of Hope and the Story of Ruth," is at once a rich source of biblical scholarship and a guide designed to help readers deal with their own personal difficulties.
The Book of Ruth, which will be read during the coming holiday of Shavuot, tells of Ruth, a Moabite princess, who marries the son of a wealthy Jew who had taken his family to Moab to avoid a devastating famine in Israel -- and, more importantly also to avoid sharing his wealth and food with fellow Jews in their time of need.
Ruth and her mother-in-law, Naomi, suffer a catastrophe when Ruth's husband, her husband's only brother and her father-in-law die precipitously. Naomi is left with two young childless daughters-in-law, neither of whom is Jewish.
Naomi urges Ruth and Orpah, Ruth's sister-in-law, to remain in Moab, with Naomi returning to Israel to put the pieces of her life together. Orpah decides to leave Naomi, but in a stunning gesture, Ruth declares that she has decided to stay with Naomi. In an act of pure loving-kindness, she states, "Do not urge me to desert you, to turn away from you. For wherever you go, I shall go; wherever you rest, I will rest; your people are my people, and your God is my God."
This is Ruth's classic statement of conversion, which is used to this very day when non-Jews convert to Judaism.
As Meier points out, Ruth is not just taking on the form of Naomi's faith, she is becoming one with it. There is nothing tentative in her action. She is taking on the very journey of Abraham, the founder of Judaism, when God instructed him in Genesis 12:1, "lech lecha -- go forth from your land, your father's house, your birthplace to the land I will show you."
The parallels between the two are stunning.
Meier notes further, "Any person who would undertake such a difficult, dangerous and frightening journey requires special divine protection. That is what was promised to Abraham when he became the first convert."
The relationship of Ruth and Naomi is full of compassion and kindness.
"Even when Naomi is confronting her inner bitterness, she extends kindness to Ruth, and Ruth reciprocates in the same manner," Meier writes. "Kindness as a response to pain, suffering and tragedy is one of the overriding themes of the Book of Ruth." It is also one of the main themes of "Second Chances."
Meier states that individual acts of kindness have repercussions well beyond themselves, as when Ruth accepts the generous offer of Boaz (whom she will later marry) to follow his harvesters and glean the grain that they leave behind.
"She leaves some food uneaten, intending to take it home to share with Naomi," Meier writes. "In this way, Ruth takes advantage of an opportunity to repair the past -- she demonstrates how different she is from her selfish Moabite forebears, who wanted to sell bread and water to Israelites wandering through the desert."
Ruth is ultimately rewarded for her great kindness by becoming the progenitor of King David, from whom the Bible states the Messiah will come.
As a contemporary analyst of the Bible, Meier contributes the insightful perspective of his own experience as chief chaplain at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and as a clinical Jungian psychologist.
His book is both an informative retelling of the story of Ruth and an ongoing extrapolation from it: Throughout his account, Meier will tell about an incident in Ruth's life and then relate it to common life problems.
The way to transform bitterness and pain to hope, Meier writes, is through personal acts of generosity and kindness. The most important, and the hardest, are acts of kindness within one's own family.
Some ideas in this profound book came to Meier while he was teaching a monthly Torah class to Hollywood writers. I was privileged to be among them; Rabbi Meier is a gifted teacher.
"Second Chances," like his teaching, is full of readily applicable observations. Using anecdotes from his clinical and life experiences -- and relating them to the story of Ruth -- Rabbi Meier personalizes his insights, giving encouragement and strength to those readers who would make the most of their own second chances.
David Brandes wrote and produced the award-winning film, "The Quarrel," and created and served as executive producer of the Showtime series, "My Life as a Dog." He can be reached at at firstname.lastname@example.org.