Los Angeles Jewish Home's Blog

How Do We Turn Life Around? — Letter from the Rabbi

Sometimes life is hard, desperate even. I am thinking of the times when everything seems to have gone wrong. Whether or not that is literally true, the effect is the same: we feel miserable, hate our lives, and there seems to be no way forward. Have you ever felt like this? It may have been during a prolonged disability, or after a dear person in your life has passed away and you feel terribly alone.

We may try to find a way forward, perhaps by meeting with a psychologist or some other wise listening person, perhaps by prayer, perhaps by throwing ourselves into activity. Over recent weeks, through my teaching in preparation for the festival of Shavuot, I have been inspired by another kind of key to unlock the gates that seem to keep us trapped.

Let’s look at the miserable situation of Naomi, as told in the biblical Book of Ruth (read every year on the second day of Shavuot). She has left Bethlehem in the Land of Israel, together with her husband Elimelech and their two sons Machlon and Chilion, and settled in the Land of Moab. But in the months and years that follow, disaster strikes – again and again and again! First Naomi’s husband dies. Her sons marry Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth, but after some years both sons die, and Naomi is left with only her daughters-in-law.

It is not hard, I think, to imagine just how desolate Naomi is, having lost her husband and both her sons. Naomi feels that life in Moab has nothing to offer her now, and decides to go back to Bethlehem. She tries to persuade her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, each to return to her family home, where they might marry Moabite husbands, and find security. At first both young women insist on staying with Naomi, but in the end Orpah gives away and reluctantly returns to her family home.

As for Ruth, her words must be among the most beautiful expressions of love and loyalty in all the Bible, indeed in all literature: Wherever you go I will go and wherever you stay I will stay. Your people shall be my people and your God my God. Wherever you die will I die, and beside you will I be buried. How can Naomi argue against such love and such absolute determination?

Why does Ruth make such an astonishing and moving pledge? She can have no expectation of reward, and must know that Naomi is right: Ruth would have a much better chance of security and happiness if she returns to her family and lives among her own people. What is so beautiful about Ruth’s pledge to Naomi is that it is pure giving, pure love.

So the two women go on to Bethlehem together, where the turns of the story lead Ruth to a good man called Boaz. Ruth and Boaz marry, and Ruth gives birth to a son – the grandchild Naomi never expected to hold. Through that son, two generations later, comes the great King David. How did such misery, as Naomi had experienced in Moab, turn to such nachas (joy)?

Surely it is Ruth’s selfless kindness towards her mother-in-law, with no expectation of reward, which brings about the change in the universe of these two women. Is there a lesson for us? Can our own selfless generosity change the world we live in?

When I raised this in my discussion groups, many residents were absolutely clear: yes we can change our world for the better; we can turn our life around. Some said it is because we change when we are particularly kind to others; others said that our own generosity can make others treat us better. I myself do believe that a selfless act of kindness and giving, without any expectation of reward, changes the universe for both the giver and the person who receives the act of kindness. We are no longer stuck in misery: we are in a new world.

Chag Shavuot Sameach - Happy Shavuot!

Rabbi Anthony Elman Rabbi Anthony Elman is the Skirball Director of Spiritual Life at the Jewish Home and also serves as Rabbi of the Home's Grancell Village campus. His professional background is multifaceted, encompassing the fields of law, social work, and psychotherapy. Rabbi Elman has been with the Home since his ordination and graduation from the Academy for Jewish Religion-California in May 2007

Labels: , , , , ,