The power of shaping people’s sense of self

  • WendyAmsellem
Shavuot, 49 days after Passover, marks the jubilant end to the exodus. On Passover, the people of Israel left Egypt, but it is only on Shavuot that they become G-d’s chosen people by accepting the Torah at Sinai.
by RABBA WENDY AMSELLEM | Jun 06, 2019

As such, Shavuot is a celebration of a journey, and it is a critical part of the Jewish people’s national narrative.

On Shavuot, we read the Book of Ruth, which is also about a journey and the crafting of a narrative. There is an important moment in the second chapter, where Ruth’s story of herself is recast and reframed. The scene is set as Boaz, a prosperous farmer, spots a new person in his fields. He enquires about her identity, and is told that she is a Moabite girl who came back to Bethlehem with Naomi.

Boaz tells the stranger that she should continue to glean in his fields, and that he has instructed his servants not to harass her. Moreover, if she is thirsty, she should feel free to drink some water.

Ruth, the Moabite woman, is overwhelmed by this kindness. She falls forward, and bows before him asking, “Why have I found favour in your eyes that you have taken notice of me, given that I am a foreigner?”

Ruth’s response teaches us a lot about the difficult circumstances in which she finds herself. Boaz has offered her the bare minimum that a host can offer – freedom from molestation and a drink of water – and yet she is overcome with gratitude.

She assumes that as a stranger, she is not even entitled to expect this much. It seems that she sees herself much as Boaz’s workers see her – a straggler who tagged along with Naomi, and wound up in Israel, subsisting on charity.

Boaz answers Ruth’s question with a powerful speech:

“It has been told to me all that you have done for your mother-in-law after your husband died. You left your father and your mother and the land of your birth, and you travelled) to a nation that you did not know.

“May G-d repay your efforts, and may you receive full reward from the G-d of Israel under whose wings you have sought shelter. (Ruth 2:11-12)”

In these two verses, Boaz rewrites Ruth’s story. She is not a random Moabite girl. She is connected to other people; she has a mother-in-law, a father, a mother, and a deceased husband.

Ruth did not randomly show up in Bethlehem. Instead, she embarked on a purposeful religious quest. Boaz deliberately uses the language of Abraham’s iconic spiritual journey. Like Abraham, Ruth chose to leave her parents and birthplace, and travel to an unknown place in order to seek out G-d.

Boaz’s words have a transformational effect on Ruth. She thanks him for comforting her and for speaking to her heart. He has given her an immeasurable gift, the ability to see her own life story in noble terms.

Most of us think of ourselves as the authors of our own life stories. We make choices, we respond to challenges, obstacles, and opportunities, and the constellation of those actions form the narratives of our lives.

Boaz’s conversation with Ruth teaches us that we have the power to shape another person’s sense of self. By supporting their choices, and ascribing aspirational intentions to their actions, we can help them see themselves in a more elevated way.

Indeed, this is not just the kindness Boaz shows Ruth, it is the grace that G-d showers upon Israel.

The exodus from Egypt could be understood as a ragtag bunch of slaves fleeing their masters. By connecting Passover, the holiday of the exodus, with Shavuot, the holiday of the revelation at Sinai, G-d constructs Israel’s journey not as a flight from but rather as a deliberate movement towards the Torah.

Boaz tells Ruth that she has left Moav to seek shelter with G-d. G-d tells Israel that they have left Egypt in order to receive the Torah and become G-d’s chosen people.

Both journeys are recast as pilgrimages, ennobling the travellers. On this Shavuot, may we listen generously, and help one another to understand and tell our life stories.

  • Wendy Amsellem is a rabba who teaches Talmud at Yeshivat Maharat, and is the editor of Maharat’s ‘Keren Journal’. She is also a faculty member at the Drisha Institute and the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. She will be speaking at Limmud Johannesburg (16-18 August); Limmud Durban (21 August); and Limmud Cape Town (23-25 August).


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