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Megillat Ruth: Modern themes, art and song

Book of Ruth Chapter 2-11 (Bible Illustrations by Sweet Media) WIKI COMMONS PHOTO

“Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” (Ruth, 1:16)

Those beautiful words will be recited on Shavuot this morning as we recite the story of Naomi and the loyalty and love shown to her by her Moabite daughter-in-law, Ruth. The story tells how Ruth refuses to abandon her mother-in-law and how she eventually meets and marries Boaz. Megillat Ruth has inspired both classical and modern commentators, artists and poets.

Today, insights into the story of Ruth.

There are many reasons given why we read this story on Shavuot.

  • Tradition tells us that King David was born and died on Shavuot. The story of Ruth concludes by revealing that King David is Ruth’s great-grandson.

There are several websites that challenge us to look at the story of Ruth and find lessons to live by. The Shalom Center points out that when Naomi and Ruth return to Israel in poverty, they are able to survive because Jewish law required landowners like Boaz to provide them with grain. But what “if Ruth the Moabite Came to America Today?… Imagine Boaz as the Jewish People in America today: well-off, comfortable, suddenly challenged by the poor and outcast. In this allegory… what should we be doing?”

From the Union of American Hebrew Congregation’s Table Talk: “Whether someone is born Jewish or converts, each of us chooses how we observe Judaism. What choices have you made about Judaism? What has influenced those choices?”

In Megillat Ruth: Hesed and Hutzpah, Noam Zion of the Shalom Hartman Institute looks at the story through the prism of two character traits: chesed – acting beyond duty, and chutzpah – bringing about tikkun olam through unconventional means. “These are part of a larger question of ideal virtues, what defines the hero/ine, and therefore the feminist question of the ideal woman, which has deeply concerned feminist Bible scholars in interpreting Megillat Ruth.” You can download Noam Zion’s 121-page study guide, which provides a structural analysis of each chapter of Ruth along with the character development of the main figures in the story.

Aside from textual commentaries, the story of Ruth has inspired artists and poets for centuries. At Jewish Heritage Online magazine, Marge Piercy looks at the unique relationship between women in her poem “Ruth and Naomi.”

… Show me a woman who does not dream

a double, heart’s twin, a sister

of the mind in whose ear she can whisper,

whose hair she can braid as her life

twists its pleasure and pain and shame.

Show me a woman who does not hide

in the locket of bone that deep

eye beam of fiercely gentle love

she had once from mother, daughter,

sister; once like a warm moon

that radiance aligned the tides

of her blood into potent order. …

Of the five Megillot, the one most associated with with illustrations is the Book of Esther replete with intrigue, heroes and villains. The story of the Book of Ruth can be subtle, melancholy and romantic, and I am so pleased that I came across the lovely site, Women’s Early Art, created by Sarah L. Whitworth. In her section on the Book of Ruth, Whitworth has illustrated the story with beautiful paintings by Rembrandt, William Blake, Chagall, Arthur Szyk (known for his classic Haggadah) and many others. A gorgeous website.

Davd Wander’s Ruth is unlike any of the above. Depicted with English text of the story, it unfolds (accordion-style) to tell the tale through contemporary images reminiscent of a graphic novel. As noted at the Jewish Press, “In image after image Wander casts the Ruth narrative into the present (the barley harvest becomes many bottles of beer(!) and the leket [leftover stalks that had been dropped by the reapers] here becomes the ‘empties’ the homeless are forced to glean from the streets to redeem for life-sustaining cash).” (Note to anyone who visits Wander’s Ruth: Although written in English, the images in the story unfold from right to left so make sure that you read it as intended.)

And if you can’t wait to hear Ruth sung in synagogue, go to your computer and listen to the book recited by the Virtual Cantor – also known as Josh Sharfman. You can follow along at well designed Chabad.org site which provides side-by-side Hebrew and English translation as well as the vital commentary by Rashi.

Chag Samayach.

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