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Joshua Judges Ruth

I've long thought that Lyle Lovett's album Joshua Judges Ruth is one of his best. I can't quite call it the soundtrack to my season, since I won't be studying Joshua or Judges this summer, but I will be reading Ruth -- in fact, I started this morning. My rabbi and I met at the coffee shop in Williamstown, settled ourselves at a corner table in the back room, said the bracha over Torah study, and opened sefer Ruth to read.

I've read Ruth a bunch of times. (It's a traditional text for study at Shavuot, so I run into it every year.) But there's a big difference between simply reading the text, in translation, as one might read any old story, and reading it closely and with intent. Already I'm learning things I hadn't known. For instance, we spent a while talking about the opening words, "In the days when the chieftains ruled..." (That's how JPS and the Oxford study Bible render it; others offer "And it came to pass in the days when the judges judged.")  R' Jeff offered a Wild West metaphor for the lawless days of the chieftains, and we flipped back to the end of the book of Judges to read chapter 19, the truly distressing story that echoes the story of Lot, to get some context.

We talked about what it meant that Elimelech and his family left the land of Israel during the famine, how his action reversed the communal trajectory, and what it meant that he chose to be a ger toshav, a resident alien, outside his own place. We talked about the theological implications of the famine they were trying to escape from, and of the deaths of Elimelech and his sons. And we talked about the hidden reference to Levirate marriage in Naomi's speech to her daughters-in-law. Isn't it intriguing that Naomi is the one to bring up Torah and its laws (in however veiled a manner), when she argues that her daughters-in-law should go home because she has no sons to give them?

As Naomi sees the situation, she's doomed; she urges her daughters-in-law to leave her, to return to their own mothers, and to begin again. In contrast, Ruth -- with her unshakeable faith in the God of Israel, and in how that God will provide despite the dire straits she and Naomi are in -- offers a completely different view of the situation. Ruth is about to break the rules (by entering the household of Israel, against the law of the time; by pledging to remain with her mother-in-law, despite Naomi's inability to give her a son to wed) -- but, paradoxically, that rule-breaking is going to be rewarded, because she's going to be redeemed, and her act will have redemptive implications for the entire community. We talked some about the intriguing notion that Ruth and Naomi represent two modes of religious being, and two paradigms for understanding Torah.

Emptiness and fullness ("I went away full, and Adonai has brought me back empty," says Naomi), the sweet and the painful (Naomi's name means "pleasant," but she gives herself the new name "bitterness"), famine (ironically arising in Beit-Lechem, the House of Bread) and the beginning of a new harvest, loss and the anticipation of solace: these themes are already present as the groundwork is laid for the story to continue. And that's where we left off, having read chapter one [Hebrew]. Now I have homework: to read the rest of the book, in Hebrew, and to head for the college library and begin learning my way around indices of Biblical scholarship. (I have to bring at least one scholarly article on Ruth to our next study session next week.) My summer is about to get a whole lot busier, but man, this is fun.

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