Without question, the two most powerful forces in life are love and death. They are the opposing polarities of existence, creating life and taking it away, bringing enormous joy and causing overwhelming sorrow. All of life is a footnote to the themes of love and death.
Love is intoxicating. The biblical book, Song of Songs, portrays the enormous power of love, with lovers who are “lovesick” (a term from the Song of Songs) and act irrationally. When Jacob falls in love with Rachel, he dramatically overpays for her dowry. Even so, Jacob imagines that he is the one who is getting a bargain, because he is so in love with her. Jacob is blinded by love.
William Blake captures this mindless blindness in a short poem: “Love to faults is always blind, / Always is to joy inclin’d, / Lawless, wing’d and unconfin’d, / And breaks all chains from every mind.” Love hatches remarkable dreams that fly in every direction; with love, nothing seems impossible.
Death brings a blindness of its own. When King Solomon wrote the book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), he began with a complaint about the pointlessness of life. Death confounds Solomon, as it is the ultimate question without an answer. What point does life have, he asks, if the righteous man meets the same end as the wicked, and the wise man meets the same end as an animal? Overwhelmed by death, a blind cynicism descends, choking off any experience of joy.
‘Ruth teaches us that the road to redemption is found when one can continue to love after a tragedy, and when that love rebuilds a broken world’
The experiences described in the Song of Songs and Kohelet, the experiences of love and death, are each intoxicating in their own way, but together, they are absolutely incompatible. However, a third biblical book brings both of these themes together: the Book of Ruth. In this story, Naomi and her family move away from Israel and are devastated by the untimely death of her husband, Elimelech, and later, her two sons, Mahlon and Chilion. Alone and impoverished, Mahlon’s wife, Ruth, returns to Israel with Naomi. Refusing to quit on life, Ruth persists, despite discrimination and desperation, to pursue a better life. She insists that she will rebuild the broken home and perpetuate the family of her husband and father-in-law. In the end, she does just that.
‘They gave charity with fury, demanding a better world than the one they had escaped. And they celebrated with a unique joy’
The Book of Ruth is not just a book of love and death; it is book about a different type of love, a love that occurs after death. Instead of succumbing to cynicism, this love battles death; and instead of intoxication, this love arrives with determination. The Book of Ruth defines redemption as the ability to rebuild and fix that which was broken. And that is precisely what Ruth’s love does. Ruth teaches us that the road to redemption is found when one can continue to love after a tragedy and when that love rebuilds a broken world.
Jewish history is the history of redemption; it is a history of people who continue to love despite having every reason to be bitter and cynical. In the last 75 years, we have watched the story of redemption unfold, once again. Crushed by the Holocaust, the Jewish People simply should have given up. Yet, the survivors of that horror followed Ruth’s example. Many were part of the Bricha and were smuggled into Israel on boats. Thousands went directly to fight for the new State of Israel. Others arrived in North America, where they married, built families, businesses and communities.
I have been privileged to know many of these survivors, the redemptive rebuilders of the Jewish community. They gave charity with fury, demanding a better world than the one they had escaped. And they celebrated with a unique joy, knowing that with each simchah, they once again defied the angel of death. And when they made a l’chaim at a celebration, you could see something remarkable twinkling in their eyes: the miracle of redemption, the ability of love to overcome death.