Ruth amongst Judges

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Usually for Shavuos I try to write something about the book of Ruth, which we traditionally read on this day, but this year I was struck by an essay called Why the Torah Was Given to a Nation of Trauma Survivors, by Tzvi Freeman (based on the teaching of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubovitcher Rebbe). Tho’ you wouldn’t know it from most of my writing about the holiday, Shavuos is the observance and celebration of the Sinai moment in Exodus —when the Divine gave the Torah to the People of Israel, and the People of Israel accepted.

And, as the article headline says—the People of Israel were a nation of survivors of trauma. It was a broken generation, famously undeserving of entering the Promised Land. These were the people who built and worshipped the Golden Calf, the people who drove Moses to ask the Divine for quick and merciful death rather than dealing with their constant backsliding, complaining and general awfulness. Why was this the generation that had the Revelation?

I mean, obviously the Divine Creator could have arranged things differently—the Torah was not revealed in all its complexity to Jacob and his sons, or to Noah, nor was it held back until the time of Joshua’s victories or Solomon’s empire. It was revealed after the Exodus to a people who had experienced slavery and subjugation and every kind of oppression, and was unhoused and nationless. The article argues that it was this audience who needed the Ten Commandments spelled out—that a less brutalized people would not have required to be told not to kill or steal. I am skeptical. There are other criminal codes that have those basic ideas in them, addressed to citizens who had not been enslaved.

And here’s the thing: we are all, in the tradition, to regard ourselves as if we were enslaved by Pharoah, and were brought out from Egypt ourselves. We all take our place, through the Divine miracle of eschatological time, at Sinai; the Sages of Blessed Memory teach that all the Jews of past and future are present at that moment—R. Abahu said in the name of R. Samuel bar Nahmani, “[…]all the souls were there, [even] when [their] bodies had still not been created.” What does that mean about us, that when we experience the Revelation at Sinai, we do so as part of that broken generation?

And, going back to Ruth, as I was bound to do eventually… the commentators discuss the question of why the events of Ruth are in a separate book, rather than being included among the many anecdotes of the book of Judges. They would, after all, fit nicely in to that book in terms of historical setting of time and geography, and would not seem wildly out of place in terms of theme or detail. Why aren’t they held aside? There are, as you might imagine, different theories, but the one that I want to pick out is that the Israelites in Judges are pretty much awful people—Judges is pretty much the story of how the People Israel squander their special relationship with the Divine Creator and the Promised Land, and dim their light unto the proverbial. Ruth, this theory goes, is about hope and faith and kindness; sticking the story into the middle of Judges would ruin both books.

So what I’m thinking about this Shavuos is that tension—the Revelation at Sinai to a generation conspicuously unworthy of it; the book of Ruth in the middle of the book of Judges; the souls of all Jews, past and present, mingled with the bodies of that brutalized and traumatized generation.

I don’t have a conclusion, which won’t surprise you much. I so rarely do have a conclusion. But I have a thing to think about, which is nearly as good.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

1 thought on “Ruth amongst Judges

  1. Michael

    As I read what you wrote about the broken generation, I am reminded of something Stephen Porges said in an interview this week talking about safety in kids — in abusive situations, victims still have a mental image of an idealized relationship, and that persistence of the image of what could be is hopeful.


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